Bruckner’s Eighth Lacks Symphonic Coherence and Narrative Logic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Bruckner: Martin Helmchen (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Christoph von Dohnanyi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.10.12. (GD)

Mozart: Piano Concerto in B flat, K 595, No, 27
Symphony No. 8 in C minor.

Dohnanyi made a fine and predictably well played  recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, in the Hass edition, issued in 1996 with the Cleveland Orchestra of which he was then the Principal Conductor and Musical Director. Although it did not initially receive any particular critical acclaim, being superseded by superb recorded versions from the likes of Gielen, Boulez, Harnoncourt, Wand and Blomstedt, I was expecting a compelling Bruckner experience tonight.

Dohnanyi opened the symphony with what seemed to me a well chosen tempo corresponding well with Bruckner’s Allegro moderato. The various tonal modulations from the opening B flat minor, by way of C major and G major, were well negotiated, with some incisive brass playing and a plangent oboe figure leading to the second subject theme (in G major) on strings. The crucial build up to the massive mid-movement climax was rhythmically firm with no hint of any kind of speeding-up of tempo. When the great climax is unleashed it should have an overwhelming effect, but tonight it sounded peculiarly underwhelming with no rock-like hold on the ground bass rhythm.  This climax is axiomatic to the whole structure/architecture of the symphony. It is the first time that the home key, C minor, is reached (or I should say variants of C minor?) as the vast edifice is shot through with C major and an emphatic B flat major, combined with two plus three rhythm.  I go into some detail here as this huge symphony can really be seen as as tonal journey, or narrative, where the home key of C minor is only reached in its stark and apocalyptic power just before the coda of the symphony in the fourth movement. Any conductor approaching this symphony must be aware of this complex tonal/harmonic structure. The whole symphony rises or falls around this tonal constellation based, as it is, on a complex, almost awe-inspiring musical logic. From this point on tonight’s performance lacked a complete sense of this symphonic coherence and  narrative logic. The first movement’s coda, – an immense climax with trumpets and horns powerfully projecting the rhythm of the first subject in an anguished C minor with a magical transformation to F minor for the desolate, fragmented coda, – again lacked that essential rock-like hold, sounding merely loud and strident.

Dohnanyi chose a quite fast tempo for the second movement scherzo with its stamping rhtyhms, stops, restarts and developments into a myriad tonal registers, climaxing in C major.  Although the movement is marked Allegro moderato, as in the first movement, it can benefit from a faster tempo. The symphony can come close to sounding like four slow movements. But with a firm hold of the rhythmic structure, as conductors like Boulez, Kubelik and Gielen have, it can register well, with a full thrust  and momentum, at the correct tempo. Tonight, apart from a well phrased and contoured A flat trio, this gigantic scherzo (really having nothing of the joke about it) there was a lack of any sense of ineluctable power and flight, so well achieved in the wonderful old van Beinum recording with the superb Concertgebouw Orchestra. As with the rest of the symphony Dohnanyi here seemed to lack a complete mastery in the sense of not fully  realizing the  expansion of Bruckner’s small, or micro, rhythmic cells, or units which develop into huge symphonic block structures. This crucially relates to the tonal and metrical architechtonic of the symphony, and it is the imperative for any conductor with enough courage to contemplate performing this daunting work to fully realise, understand and project this. All this was not helped by frequent   and messy ensemble and tuning problems, especially in woodwind and brass. Also, in the scherzo proper, the dynamic range seemed to be projected at one, rather loud, level, with little sense of textural and dynamic contrast. And,as in the rest of the symphony, I had problems in hearing the deliniation between the 8 horns and four Wagner tubas.

The great Adagio opening with pulsating chords in D flat major, over which the strings initiate a solemn consolatory theme, Dohnanyi paced quite well. The pulsating chords (so redolent of the underlying pulse from the second act of Tristan) were certainly ‘there’, but I did not quite have the sense of them emerging from within the music (realised so magically in any of the Jochum recordings). It seemed to be more a case of them just being played from without. The first huge paragraphs of the movement were well paced and sustained at a suitably slow – adagio – tempo, ‘doch nicht schleppend’ (not dragging) in accordance with Bruckner’s marking. The second subject also went well with radiant horns introducing an expansive and well contoured melody for cellos. The problems began in the lead up to a vast climax with swirling strings in chordal progression over which the brass intone Wagner’s Siegfried theme. It is a truly staggering moment, but by the time we reach the tonal shift into the descending theme in the minor, reinforced by a powerful onslaught from ff tmpani something happened which put the whole passage out of kilter. I am not sure whether or not it was a misjudgement of timing by the conductor, or whether the orchestral ensemble just came apart; or could it have been a combination of both?

In the descending chords  the timpanist made a late entry after which the whole passage wasn’t together, missing the elemental power of the music and sounding ineffective. The following section to a certain extent diverted attention away from the preceding blunder. Dohnanyi deployed the Hass edition of the 1892 version which restores eleven bars of lyrical music ( now thought to be partly recomposed by Hass) acting as a kind of bridge passage to the exultant brass theme in the major of the movement’s opening theme. After this misjudgement there was was a sense of tentativeness in the lead up to the great E flat major climax which was peculiarly underpowered and ineffective, as though Dohnanyi  had chosen to tone the climax down. This, of all symphonic climaxes replete with cymbal crashes!   I checked Dohnanyi’s Cleveland recording, mentioned above, and here, although he chooses not to emphasise the climax, it still makes its effect in the dynamic context of the rest of the movement. Also, in the recording the Siegfried sequence is impressively delivered in terms of timing and dynamic unity. A well played and phrased subsiding coda with a nice horn cadenza did not compensate for the above mentioned problems.

Dohnanyi took the long finale at quite a rapid pace, coming in at just over twenty minutes. Dohnanyi mostly sustained the line/structure quite well. But there was a prevailing tone of superficiality with no real sense of the thematic material developing from the previous and copious thematic constellations. It was all ‘there’ but with no sense of being revealed or uncovered after a long symphonic traversal. The gigantic tutti ostinato sequence before the development proper, in variants of C minor, with brass and timpani rhythms, and accompanying cross-rhythm counterpoint  in the strings was delivered at a sustained pace but sounded merely loud, having nothing of the majestic menace of a Boulez or Gielen. After the long development sequences of themes recalling motifs from the previous movements, with a dramatic march like version of the opening gallop of crotchets,here sounding exciting in a superficial way, we have a sense that Bruckner is leading the listener to a special goal. As I noted above the symphony can be seen as a journey, an Odyssey through the variants of C minor, and indeed after a massive crescendo we eventually arrive at a bleak, but fully resonant tutti C minor. Dohnanyi delivered this quite well in terms of timing and pacing but for me, again, it sounded somehow underpowered and ineffective compared to say Wand or Harnoncourt. When the great C major peroration of the coda came, with its contrapuntal combination the main themes in all four movements, it sounded exciting, if a shade too loud with the feel of a grandstand finale.  I could have done with less of this and  more cumulative symphonic power and clarity here. The coda was the culmination of a long and sometimes tortuous symphonic quest.

I feel I must make brief mention of for me a rather irritating feature, not so much of the performance as a whole, but of an instrumental distortion. The timpanist throughout, rather than playing straight powerful rolls as frequently indicated in the score, delivered throughout an initial thwack followed by a full crescendo leading to a final thwack. The timpani parts in Bruckner are not something critics or commentators in general mention much. But they are important, especially in the Eighth Symphony. They do not serve any kind of virtuoso or display role, but  are essential in reinforcing the music at cardinal points; long chordal sequences and massive ostinato figures as a kind of ground bass component. This applies in the very opening of the Eighth at the first tutti enunciation of the main theme; also in the massive mid-movement ascent to the first climatic unleashing of C minor. I have not encountered this departure from Bruckner’s score in any other performance heard, both in concert and on record. I am surprised that such an experienced conductor as Dohnanyi tolerated this kind of manerism. It is certainly nowhere to be heard in his already mentioned Cleveland recording.

The concert opened with a  well conceived and unmannered operformance of Mozart’s last Piano Concerto, K 595. Throughout there was a good sense of rapport between Dohnanyi and Martin Helmchen. Dohnanyi deployed a quite large string complement as was fashionable before ‘period’ performances. With this in mind it seems a little odd here that in the Bruckner he reduced the double-basses from the usual eight to six! But overall this was fine Mozart, with Dohnanyi wisely deploying antiphonal srings,  producing an extra textual clarity and lucidity. Both soloist and conductor avoided all mannerisms, particularly in the   reflective E flat Larghetto, which was totally in tune with the deceptively simple tone of eloquence and grace. Also the ‘hunting’ Allegro finale, shot rthrough with melancholy, with sudden shifts to the minor, was well articulated. Although  Helmchen’s playing was accurate and elegant I would have welcomed more tonal diversity as heard in a marvellous performance with Maria Joao Pires, and also one by Andreas Staier. I think now there is latitude for projecting the more dramatic aspects of the concerto,  with more sharply audible horns and woodwind, as in the Staier performance. Up until quite recently this concerto was seen as one of Mozart’s ‘late’ works, having about it a valedictory aura – Mozart’s ‘transfigured farewell’ as one commentator noted. In reality we know that Mozart, at the time, early 1791, had no thoughts of dying, being involved in numerous compositions and commissions. And we also know now that far from being a valedictory work the first two movements were composed as early as 1788, one of Mozart’s most prolific periods.

But in its own way tonight’s performance was most satisfying in its unmannered charm and eloquence.


Geoff Diggines