Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin: Compelling in Bruckner’s Eighth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bruckner: Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 17.4.2012 (MB)

Bruckner:  Symphony no.8 in C minor (ed. Haas)

Having spent some of today wondering whether I had been a little harsh on last night’s performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony from the Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim, I am delighted to report that this performance of the Eighth represented a thoroughgoing success. (It also tends to confirm me in my belief that the shortcomings of the earlier performance, though certainly not grievous, were worth noticing and reporting.) It was a definite advantage now to be sitting in the Front Stalls, my previous position at the back of the Rear Stalls undoubtedly having dulled the orchestral sound, though by the same token, the standard of execution from the Staatskapelle Berlin was now less variable.

For the sound Barenboim extracted from his orchestra emerged both more ‘settled’ and simply – in reality, of course, there is nothing simple about this – more consistently ‘right’. I was immediately taken at the opening of the first movement by the translucency of the strings in particular, that quality putting me in mind of the truly great recording of this work made by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Boulez. (That was the performance that first made the symphony ‘work’ for me, enabling a return to Karajan, Giulini, et al., before turning to more ‘historical’ recordings.) The orchestra managed somehow to balance that translucency with due weight – if that makes any sense at all! It was certainly not ‘heavy’ in a stereotypically ‘old school’ sense, but nor was there any nonsense about thinning of textures and so on. (Brucknerians may regret the ambivalence of many listeners to at least some of the composer’s music, but they should think themselves lucky that they have suffered less from puritanical, ‘authenticke’ practices than most other nineteenth-, let alone eighteenth-century masters, Roger Norrington notwithstanding.) Heart-stopping solos from French horn and oboe enabled Bruckner for once genuinely to look forward to Mahler, perhaps even – and please forgive me should this offend, for it is certainly not intended to do so – to Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. At any rate, there was a sense of wondrous vistas opening up, in a fashion I tend to associate more with Mahler and, in that particular case, Strauss. The brass section was on uniformly better form than it had been for the Seventh (though I still treasure the memory of the Wagner tubas in the slow movement of that work.) There was, as this movement progressed, a sense of the apocalyptic that I had missed on that occasion too – partly, I think, a matter of surer control on Barenboim’s part, for not once did he seem to waver.

Such command, especially in terms of harmonic rhythm, was greatly in evidence in the scherzo, adding considerably to dramatic tension. The warm tone of the Staatskapelle’s cellos at the opening is worthy of especial mention, likewise the ‘natural’ – I know, a loaded word – impression of changing organ registration. There was, though, a slight sense of disappointment in the way that the scherzo, first time around, rather fizzled out; this was more or less the only occasion on which the orchestra sounded tired, failing to further that apocalyptic tendency to which I referred above. There was some beautifully detailed playing in the trio, not least from the harps; silences were given their proper due, save for the intervention of a mobile telephone.

The opening of the slow movement benefited from violin tone that was rich and yet veiled: mysterious, even in a theological sense. Barenboim and the orchestra revelled – and how or why could one not? – in the Wagnerian harmonies, always shaped with conviction, neither rushed nor indulged. If I had missed that sense of the apocalyptic in the scherzo, it was present at the opening of the finale: strings, brass, and of course kettledrums. Barenboim demonstrated the difference between drive and the merely hard-driven, his structural and dramatic command clear throughout. Occasionally I wished for something still more ‘dramatically’ conceived, but this apparently more ‘objective’ approach – and I am talking about matters of degree here – was undoubtedly successful on its own terms.

Anything to grumble about, then? The programme note, I am afraid, left more than a little to be desired. One does not necessarily expect full treatment of analytical controversies, though in the case of Bruckner there is a greater case for such discussion than with almost any other composer. Nevertheless, to read, ‘The central trio section [of the scherzo] embraces some of the most inspired music Bruckner ever penned,’ without further comment on that music, does not suffice. Moreover, phrases such as ‘thoroughly authentic’ ought long since to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. The musical performance, however, exhibited a conviction that rendered such thoughts unnecessary. Purists may have cavilled at Barenboim’s use of the Haas edition, but Barenboim, like Boulez and many others before him, made the case for it as the most convincing option for this symphony.

Mark Berry