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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 (version 1890, edited Nowak 1955)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, November 13-18 2017, Philharmonie, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900165 [80.07]

This recording has already attracted a rather disparate spread of critical responses ranging from the underwhelmed to the overjoyed; some listeners clearly share the sentiments of those who have mischievously nicknamed the conductor “Yawnsons”, declaring it to be “prosaic”, “unengaging” and “uninvolving”; others hail it as “glorious”, “masterly” and “stupendous”. Subjectivity rules, it seems. Similarly, there is a remarkable lack of critical unanimity reflected in the wider question of which are the touchstone recordings; some revere Jochum, others Wand, Maazel or one of Karajan’s versions. Most at least agree on the excellence of the live recorded sound, yet even there, dissenting voices have been raised, calling it “too hard”. There is also an SACD release, but that is available only in Japan; this review is based upon listening to the regular version. My experience of the sound given to Jansons by the BR-Klassik sound engineers in his extraordinarily fine “Ein Alpensinfonie” led me to expect another sonic triumph and so it proves here; although it is derived from live performances, complete with final applause, there is otherwise no extraneous noise apart from some frequent tuneless groaning from the conductor; the soundscape is rich, full, detailed and perfectly balanced.

Jansons uses the 1890 Nowak edition here, rather than the Haas mixed version, removing the additions of the earlier editor. To this day, preferences for one or the other are evenly divided among conductors; of my favourite recordings, Maazel used this same edition in his superb account with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989, as did Tennstedt, whereas Karajan and Wand always favoured the Haas. I also much enjoy Kent Nagano’s recording of the original 1887 version, with its plethora of cymbal clashes in a longer Adagio. Old-timers like Furtwängler (in his 1954 VPO recordng; otherwise he used his own version) and Knappertsbusch of course employed the now discredited 1892 Schalk edition but I would be loath to part with them. I am also very taken by Gerd Schaller’s recording of the 1888 variant edited by Carragan; in other words, I am open to any and all versions of this masterwork if a conductor can keep it together and make magic. In many ways, Jansons’ approach here is similar to that of Saraste in his swift recording of the same symphony released two years ago, whereby drama and momentum are emphasised over weight and grandeur – although Saraste used the Haas edition of the 1890 version which incorporates some sections from the original 1887 score.

The beauty and homogeneity of the playing here reinforce the rapt concentration of Jansons’ long lines; the horns, in particular, are majestic, the still moments for descending solo flute and clarinet are wonderfully serene, and the strings sing without a hint of shrillness. Judging by the recording dates provided, this is presumably a live composite recording and as such the engineers were able to edit out any minor blips in ensemble or intonation to construct perfection; certainly I cannot hear even any of the minor flaws one might expect from a single live performance. I find that Jansons creates the requisite tension right from the opening bars of the first movement and sustains it throughout through his judicious, indeed masterly, grading of dynamics and a consistent sense of drive and purpose. Hence the ritenuto he applies at the great climax half way through the movement makes a greater impact in contrast to the generally propulsive momentum.

The Scherzo, as is so often the case with a great orchestra and a first-class conductor, virtually plays itself, as it were; given the clarity and logic of its structure, despite this being the longest of Bruckner’s Scherzos, it is the movement least susceptible to any interpretative foibles. The contrast between the solid, yeoman galumphing and the delicacy of the dialogue between the harps and horns is neatly pointed.

The transcendent Adagio lies at the heart of any performance of the Eighth; I could do without more audible humming along from Jansons and occasionally I feel that he rushes his phrasing, but that is consistent with his refusal to linger elsewhere; he prefers to generate drama over mystery, hence his fairly swift timing of under twenty-five minutes. The shimmering beauty of the harps and violins is exceptionally atmospheric here and the record permits the timpani to assume a welcome prominence at crucial points. Lovely though the playing is here, I miss in the coda some of the heart-rending pathos the greatest recordings engender; there is a hint of perfunctoriness in Jansons’ closing bars compared with the cosmic consummation provided by Karajan and the VPO.

The Finale, however, blazes with energy, surging and driving forward massively, its attack and impact enormously enhanced by the sonority of the Wagner tubas. The Wagnerian coda gradually gathers momentum, pounding towards a thunderous and deeply satisfying peroration.

The enthusiastic applause and cries of “Bravo!” reflect my own response to this splendid recording, even if ultimately it does not supplant my attachment to established favourites.

Ralph Moore

[This review commissioned, and reproduced here, by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal]

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Dan Morgan ~ Marc Bridle (SACD)


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