RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor - first version (1887) [82:41]
Hamburger Philharmoniker/Simone Young
rec. live, 14-15 December 2008, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg. DSD
OEHMS OC 638 SACD [30:45 + 51:56]
In January 2013 I went to Birmingham to review for Seen and Heard a concert in which Andris Nelsons was scheduled to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. Unfortunately he fell ill and had to withdraw. Though I was disappointed not to hear the highly impressive Nelsons conduct this work there were two compensations. In the first place, his place was taken by Simone Young, who I had never seen conducting before though I have admired her work on disc. Secondly, since she took over the concert at short notice Ms Young, not unreasonably, opted to conduct the version of the score with which she was already familiar; this meant that instead of Robert Haas’s well-known edition of the 1890 revised version of the symphony we heard the much less familiar original version of 1887. I’d heard it before in Georg Tintner’s Naxos recording but, to put it mildly, Simone Young’s performance was a revelation (review). I came away from Symphony Hall that night resolved to acquire Ms Young’s recording of the symphony.
Her recordings have been well received in these pages. Dan Morgan was most enthusiastic about her account of Mahler’s Second symphony (review). That impressed me also, as did her recording of the Sixth. As for her Bruckner, I’ve heard the Second and Fourth symphonies and found them to be very good (review review) while Gary Higginson also thought well of her reading of the Third, even if he was less convinced by the edition used (review).
Bruckner composed his Eighth Symphony between 1884 and 1887 in the wake of the triumph he’d enjoyed with the Seventh. He sent the completed score to the conductor, Hermann Levi, who had achieved a conspicuous success with the Seventh. Levi found he couldn’t understand the work and when this news was relayed to Bruckner it was a devastating setback. He set about a wholesale revision and the 1890 version that resulted is what’s been commonly played ever since. Actually, that’s not entirely true for the edition of the 1890 score that Robert Haas compiled, and which is most commonly played nowadays, is largely based on the revision but is, in fact, something of a hybrid. Haas reinstated some passages from the 1887 score which his researches convinced him Bruckner had omitted under pressure from well-meaning friends. For ease of reference, however, throughout this review references to the “1890 score” will be to the Haas edition with which most collectors will be familiar.
It’s fascinating to listen to the original version and spot where Bruckner made his changes. Many of the alterations are what I’d call internal in that they involve changes of scoring - the harps, for example, aren’t involved in the scherzo - though they all add up to a pretty thorough revision. However, there are a lot of alterations to the musical material and though many of these involve only a few bars here and there several changes are radical, including a substantially different trio section in the scherzo. The 1890 score is somewhat shorter than the 1887 version: in his detailed booklet note Michael Lewin tells us that the 1887 version of the first movement contains 36 more bars than the 1890 score; the 1887 Adagio is longer by 38 bars and the finale is 62 bars longer. It’s not really helpful to compare the two versions of the Scherzo since the respective trios are completely different.
As was apparent in Birmingham, Simone Young really has the measure of this score. She conducts with a fine appreciation of its breadth and nobility but there’s also urgency aplenty at times, not least in the Scherzo, where she generates excellent momentum and energy. The music of the scherzo itself is largely familiar from the 1890 revision. However, the trio (5:19 - 9:16) is completely different in the original score, even if some fragments which survived into the revised version can be glimpsed (for example 6:13 - 6:30). One major difference between the 1887 and 1890 scores is that in this earlier version the harps do not appear in the trio; Bruckner held them back for the Adagio. I feel that the 1890 trio is better but there’s some good music in the 1887 trio and it’s good to be able to hear it, especially when it’s as well played and persuasively conducted as here. When the scherzo material is reprised Ms Young invests the music with fire and even more excitement than first time round, just as she did a few weeks ago in the Birmingham performance I heard.
I’ve got ahead of myself and omitted to comment on the first movement. From the very start this performance impresses, firstly because the playing is so good - sample the richness of the cello sound in the opening pages, for example. The first entry of the brass (0:56), which is slightly different to what we’re accustomed to hearing, has great presence, which underlines the excellent quality of the recorded sound. As the movement unfolds listeners will recognise passages which Bruckner re-thought for the revised score. On balance I think that most of these revisions were beneficial. For example between 7:28 and 7:51 we hear a string figure repeated several times before the music eventually modulates. These bars are omitted from the revision and rightly so in my view; they hold up the progress of the music. The climax which immediately follows (to 9:04) was also subject to some revision though the changes seem to be mainly questions of dynamics - I haven’t seen a score. One change which I’m absolutely sure was beneficial concerns the end of the first movement. The subdued, desolate conclusion in the 1890 version is a masterstroke but that wasn’t how Bruckner originally saw things. In the 1887 score that passage is followed by a fortissimo major-key conclusion (from 14:53). By comparison with the highly original conclusion at which Bruckner eventually arrived this loud ending seems obvious and rather bombastic. If Bruckner had changed nothing else during the revision process his second thoughts at this point would have more than justified a reappraisal of the symphony.
The great Adagio, one of Bruckner’s finest creations, opens with tremendous breadth and conviction in this performance; the Hamburg strings are superb in these pages. In the first few paragraphs there is virtually no difference that I can discern between the 1887 and 1890 versions. Later on there are some significant changes. One example is the climax between 20:17 and 20:55, which is extended and sustained in a way that’s very different to what we’re accustomed to hearing in the 1890 score. Furthermore, the approach to this climax and the passage that follows it are very different indeed compared to the 1890 version. The main climax of the movement is reached at 21:31 and one of the most obvious differences concerns the use of the cymbals. In the 1890 revision Bruckner caps this climax with two cymbal clashes - one at the start of the climax and one at its conclusion. The 1887 score had two series of three clashes at these points. I prefer Bruckner’s second thoughts. After the climax there are quite a few changes, some of which concern dynamics, but some good musical material was jettisoned in the revision and Simone Young enables us to hear what was lost. The coda (24:34 - 27:44) was subject only to fairly modest revision, which means it’s just as inspired in the 1887 score. Ms Young and her orchestra are absolutely superb hereabouts, delivering this marvellous music with real dignity. In fact, though I’ve commented in this paragraph on some of the principal differences between the two versions of the score, the truth is that not many minutes of this performance had elapsed before I stopped bothering about which edition of the score was being played. Quite simply, this is a magnificent performance of the Adagio, irrespective of what edition is being used. If you want proof that Simone Young is a Bruckner conductor of genuine stature you will find it in her magisterial account of this movement.
The finale once again contains many points of detail that Bruckner changed in his revision and there are also some passages that he cut completely. This movement can seem episodic in the 1890 version; not all the transitions work. Somewhat to my surprise the 1887 version seems to flow rather more satisfactorily. What I’m unsure about is whether this better flow suggests that Bruckner’s first thoughts were preferable or is it down to the persuasiveness of Simone Young’s conducting? As was the case in the Birmingham performance, I found myself wishing that she’d invested the build-up to the final peroration (from 22:00) with just a little more breadth. However, having had the chance to assimilate her interpretation more thoroughly through hearing it on disc I’m more than willing to accept that what I might perceive as marginally too much urgency is of a piece with her dramatic approach to the movement. Those coming new to this score from the 1890 version will find one last surprise just before the end (23:25 - 23:41) where there’s a sudden and unexpected reduction in the dynamics. It makes an interesting effect though I’m not sure that it works as well as the conclusion with which we’re all familiar.
So, having heard the 1887 score in Simone Young’s masterly performance, what view is one to take of the revision: should Bruckner have made it? Previously, and based solely on hearing Georg Tintner’s recording, my answer to this question would have been that the 1890 score is vastly to be preferred. I still believe that’s so: the trio section of the second movement is preferable in the 1890 version and I have no hesitation at all in preferring the revised version of the end of the first movement. However, I think it’s a measure of the quality of this Young reading that in many other respects I’m now less sure than I was. Many of the changes that Bruckner made smooth off what, by reference to the 1890 score, are jagged edges and some of the transitions and passages of repeated figurations were improved; There’s little doubt that the 1890 score is a more polished piece of work. Yet I wonder if in the process some of what, in 1887, may appear to us to be rough edges Bruckner didn’t sacrifice some of the radicalism in the Eighth.
Recordings of the 1887 version of this symphony are rare. The only other recording that is currently available so far as I am aware is the 1996 Naxos recording by Georg Tintner (review). That comes in a two-disc set coupled with the Symphony No. 0 in D minor (“Die Nullte”). That enjoys a price advantage over Simone Young’s recording and the interpretation is marked by the integrity and dedication that one associates with Tintner in Bruckner. However, if you want a recording of the 1887 version of this great symphony my unhesitating advice is that you should choose Ms Young. The recorded sound is significantly better, for one thing. Also, although the National Symphony of Ireland plays well enough for Tintner the Hamburger Philharmoniker is in a different - and much superior - league. Finally, I find Simone Young’s interpretation more consistently convincing. Tintner takes longer over every movement - nearly four minutes longer in the case of the Adagio - and he brings the symphony in at 89:30. Ms Young doesn’t sacrifice any nobility or grandeur but her way with the score is consistently tauter and often more urgent. Her account of the Scherzo has more thrust and fire in its belly than we hear with Tintner and though Tintner is good in the trio Young phrases the music even more persuasively. Tintner is daringly expansive in the Adagio and there’s a craggy grandeur to his conception but I think he’s a bit too broad at times and Simone Young’s superb interpretation is served by much richer and sonorous orchestral playing. The greatest compliment I can pay her is to say that, despite years of familiarity with the Haas edition, never once did I find myself pining for it while listening to her performance; that’s not quite true of my experience of Tintner’s rather plainer account.
In the last analysis there are two reasons why anyone interested in Bruckner should invest in this set - and I use the word “invest” deliberately; it will be an investment. Firstly, it is absolutely fascinating to compare and contrast Bruckner’s first and second thoughts on this great score. He was right to revise it but not all the changes were gains, as this recording makes clear and Simone Young here makes the best possible case for the first version. Secondly, irrespective of what edition is being played, this recording preserves, I believe, what is simply a great Bruckner performance. I hope Simone Young will go on to record the rest of the symphonies but this is surely her finest piece of advocacy to date for Bruckner and Oehms have captured it in superb, realistic sound.
Bruckner’s first thoughts on the Eighth Symphony in a superb performance.
Masterwork Index: Bruckner 8
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