Since Walter Legge
persuaded Schnabel to record the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven
for his new HMV subscription service, the classical music recording
industry has been obsessed with the concept of the boxed set.
This is especially the case for symphonies. While reviewers
repeat the mantra that collectors will do better to pick up
individual records rather than one-conductor symphonic cycles,
the desire of music-lovers to have so-and-so’s Brahms
and Beethoven has seen recording companies over the years compiling
boxes of symphonies by just about every conductor you can name,
from Abbado to Weller and back again.
One conductor who
consistently bucked the boxed set trend was Carlo Maria Giulini.
His repertoire was, like Carlos Kleiber's, restricted to a handful
of works that he knew and loved. I believe that he never recorded
a complete cycle of anyone's symphonies. Of Bruckner's canon,
he recorded only the second symphony and the last three.
acquired a reputation as a major Bruckner interpreter, and on
the evidence of this recording of Bruckner's 8th, it is easy
to see why. His conception of the piece is immense. It is undeniably
slow, but utterly compelling.
The first movement
is kindled into life like the fires of a massive locomotive,
moving with inexorable momentum, though without speed. The brass
chorales and explosive tuttis of the first movement have enormous
rhetorical power, and Giulini allows them plenty of room to
be intoned, pulling tempo right back at just the moments a Jochum
would push ahead. There is also plenty of contrast between power
and tenderness, as individual voices intone as in empty space
after the last echoes of the tuttis have faded.
The mood of the
scherzo is lighter than that of the first movement, but at slow
tempi – he favours an andante over the marked allegro
moderato – and with full, rich orchestral sound, it remains
serious. He conjures an Italianate glow from the strings in
the major modulations of the scherzo and a depths-of-the-forest
sense of mystery from the minor key passages. In the trio, Giulini
takes Bruckner's langsam marking very seriously and achieves
a sense of rapture. The ascending arpeggios on the harp in the
trio are gorgeous.
Then, the adagio.
At 29:15 you may expect that the tension of the movement would
be lost, but Giulini never lets it slacken. He shapes each harmonic
block and creates a timeless glow. Listening to this is a very
moving experience. The finale – the most satisfying in all Bruckner
and a fitting culmination to this fabulous symphony – is gritty
and powerful, but with moments of melting beauty. The Vienna
strings sing out in the second subject, with a wonderfully bass
up sonority that gives the music a feel of real depth and presence.
Giulini's attention to dynamics is also superb, as he draws
the most hushed of pianissimos from the orchestra even after
the most vocal of passages.
In sum, this is
a special reading of this most compelling of Bruckner's symphonies,
and other than Celibidache's, it is the longest on record that
I am aware of, and certainly the longest rendition of the shorter
Nowak score. There are more viscerally exciting accounts – Tennstedt's
with the London Philharmonic Orchestra leads the pack here (EMI
Gemini 0946 3 81761 2 1) – and in terms of sheer orchestral
brilliance the Berliners under Maazel (EMI 7243 5 69796 2 8)
outplay the Vienna Philharmonic – but Giulini brings a spirituality
to the score and a depth of emotion, especially in the adagio,
that are unmatched elsewhere. The early digital sound is warm
and clear, though some of the instrumental solos from the winds
feel spot-lit rather than placed in their natural perspective.
If you love this symphony, you owe it to yourself to hear Giulini's
interpretation, either on DVD,
Legends, or on this Arkiv release.
The other Arkiv
release considered here is Herbert von Karajan's second of three
recordings of Bruckner's 8th. Unlike Giulini, Karajan was king
of the boxed set – who else can claim to have recorded the Beethoven
symphonies four times commercially, not including his cycle
on film for Unitel? This 1976 performance comes from Karajan's
complete cycle of Bruckner's symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon.
He may have been a boxed set conductor, and he may have recorded
this symphony many times, but Karajan too had a special relationship
with his fellow Austrian, Anton Bruckner, and with this symphony
in particular. When the post-war ban on Karajan's live performances
was lifted in October 1947, it was with Bruckner's 8th
that he reintroduced himself to the Vienna Philharmonic and
the Viennese public. He gave the score he used for that concert
to boxed-set mastermind Walter Legge, who had taken advantage
of Karajan's absence from the public podium to turn him into
a recording artist. It was inscribed: “To my second musical
self and dear friend in memory of a long-awaited day.”
It was for Legge
that Karajan first recorded Bruckner's 8th symphony
commercially. That recording
was made in 1957, a year after his return concert, when he had
just been appointed as Furtwängler's successor in Berlin. His
third and final commercial recording of the 8th was
one of the last recordings he made and marked something of a
musical homecoming, as he conducted the 8th yet again
with the Vienna Philharmonic under his baton. That version,
which I have not heard, is widely regarded as the best of his
three accounts and a reference version of the symphony. Prior
to its release, though, this Berlin recording held the palm.
It was definitely one of the high points of his complete cycle.
Putting the unknown
- to me - Vienna account to one side, the comparison with the
1950s EMI recording is interesting. In the 1950s the orchestral
sound is darker, the interpretation starker, more brooding and
more spacious. By 1976, Karajan's view of the work had become
leaner and more fully integrated. The sound of the Berlin Philharmonic
is also different. The heavy, bottom-up sonority that Furtwängler
cultivated is no more, and the trademark Karajan unaccented
fortes are everywhere to be heard. This is slick stuff. Maazel
with the same orchestra some 14 years later is slicker still,
but Karajan has more depth. He also has the knack of making
Bruckner flow, so that this two disc 82 minute rendition of
the symphony slips by without you realising that time has passed.
Unlike Jochum who picks up pace at the climaxes and Giulini
who slows down for them, Karajan presses on with a consistent
His first movement
has grandeur and beauty. There is brightness and a sense of
release to the scherzo – though Maazel and Tennstedt create
greater contrast between the darkness of the modulating minor
and the explosions in to the major. Still, the playing of the
Berliners is undeniably immaculate. The adagio sings sweetly,
and though Giulini perhaps finds more emotion here, Karajan
conjures beautiful sounds from his orchestra that are impossible
to resist. The finale has fine impetus and strength, and again
the brilliance of the orchestra's strings and brass are mesmerising.
I find Giulini more stoic and defiant here, and Tennstedt more
gripping as the winner of the more hard fought victory, but
Karajan's grip on the symphonic argument is firm and this finale
is of a piece with his interpretation of the whole work. Karajan's
analogue recording is warmer and better integrated than Giulini's
I should note that
in mentioning Giulini, Maazel and Tennstedt in my discussion
of Karajan's recording I am not really comparing like with like.
All three of them use the Nowak score, while Karajan uses the
who charts a course between Tennstedt and Maazel, uses the Haas
score and is also well worth hearing. Whether you prefer his
account to Karajan's will come down to personal choice between
the dramatic (Barenboim) and the beautiful (Karajan).
The Karajan issue
also includes a coupling – a light and sweet Siegfried-Idyll,
which is warmly recorded and nice to have, without being particularly
Both Giulini and Karajan
are major interpreters of Bruckner, and both demand to be heard
in this symphony. Giulini's Vienna recording has the edge over
Karajan's second Berlin recording in depth of feeling and spiritual
nourishment, perhaps, but Karajan does not lag by much, and he
brings orchestral playing of wonderful refinement, particularly
from his strings. Choose between them if you must, but the better
course is to buy both. Thanks to Arkiv, you can.