Convincing Original Bruckner Eighth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bruckner :  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simone Young (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 6.12.2012 (JQ)

Bruckner:  Symphony No 8 in C minor (1887 version)

Andris Nelsons was scheduled to conduct this concert but was obliged to withdraw due to illness. At short notice the Australian conductor, Simone Young stepped in. She has been the artistic director of Hamburg State Opera and music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra since 2005. With the Hamburg Philharmonic she has made a number of impressive recordings, including a Bruckner series which has so far covered the first four symphonies and the Eighth. One significant feature of her Bruckner recordings has been that she has used the original versions of the scores. Given the short notice of this engagement it was, perhaps, not unreasonable that she should have chosen to conduct not the familiar 1890 Haas edition, which Nelsons was to have performed, but Bruckner’s 1887 version. Though it was not stated in the programme I believe that this score was edited for the Internationale Bruckner-Gesellschaft by Leopold Nowak.

Though I was disappointed when I heard that Nelsons could not lead this concert I was excited by the prospect of seeing Simone Young on the podium. Though I’ve never seen her conduct I’ve heard several of her recordings, including those of Mahler’s Second symphony (review) and the Sixth and I have been impressed. Even more relevantly, I’ve heard a couple of her Bruckner recordings, namely the Second and Fourth symphonies (review review) which I’ve thought very good, though her recording of the Eighth has so far eluded me.

I’ve encountered the 1887 version of the score previously through Georg Tintner’s Naxos recording (review). Bruckner wrote this symphony in the wake of the success he’d enjoyed with the Seventh symphony. He sent the completed score to the conductor, Hermann Levi, but Levi found he couldn’t understand the work and when this was relayed to Bruckner it was a devastating setback. He set about a wholesale revision of the score and the 1890 version that resulted is what’s been commonly played ever since. 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 and orchestration – 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 several radical changes, including a substantially different trio section in the scherzo. The 1890 score is a bit shorter than the 1887 version and Stephen Johnson suggested in the programme note that he’d provided for the anticipated Nelsons’ performance that the 1890 revision is “significantly darker” than the first version. I think that’s a very interesting observation: certainly the 1890 score has a gaunt majesty which Bruckner didn’t quite achieve first time round. Overall I think the changes that Bruckner made – most especially the revision to the ending of the first movement – were beneficial. However, Simone Young made a compelling case for the 1887 score.

The first movement opened auspiciously. Ms Young adopted a very convincing pace and shaped the music authoritatively: these were to be hallmarks not just of her way with this movement but of her approach to the symphony as a whole. There were a number of audible changes from what one is accustomed to hearing but mostly these were relatively minor. The most obvious difference between the 1887 and 1890 scores comes right at the end of the movement where, after the desolate music which is such a shatteringly effective conclusion to the 1890 version Bruckner initially added a brass-dominated coda. This is a very loud major-key affirmation of the movement’s first theme. Ms Young managed to avoid this music sounding merely grandiose but in my view if Bruckner had made no other changes to the entire score the excision of this passage would have made the revision worthwhile.

There were changes to the scherzo also but for the most part the music survived into the 1890 version. However, the trio is radically different, though some material was carried over into the 1890 score. The main theme of the trio, an extended paragraph for strings, which was warmly phrased here, is completely different and, as previously mentioned, the harps are not involved. Ms Young was completely successful in her leadership of this movement. In particular she inspired the CBSO to play the scherzo material with real punch and great energy. In fact I can’t readily recall hearing a more exciting rendition of this music.

The great Adagio found Ms Young displaying the breadth and the control of line that marks out a true Brucknerian. In the first few minutes the CBSO strings, especially the first violins and cellos, excelled; indeed, it was a fine night all round for the CBSO string section. Later on there was some very fine playing from the expanded horn section, the deep Wagner tubas making a sonorously telling contribution. Simone Young’s ability to build Bruckner’s great terraced climaxes was particularly noteworthy. These climaxes and the build-ups to them, though majestic in 1887, would become even more effective when Bruckner had pruned and polished them for the 1890 score. One improvement, though a relatively minor one, was his decision to cap the last massive climax with just two cymbal clashes; in 1887 he included two series of three clashes – so six in all -, and this is less imposing. The long, gently glowing conclusion to the movement remained largely unchanged between the two versions: in this performance it was managed splendidly.  Regardless of what edition of the score was being used this was a magnificent reading of the movement.

The 1887 finale is pretty much as we know it from the 1890 revision. I wonder if it was this movement – and the huge, profound Adagio – that Hermann Levi found so difficult to grasp. Certainly it can appear episodic, not least thanks to Bruckner’s use of luftpausen, which can create a stop-start impression. I thought Ms Young managed these potentially awkward transitions very well and, as had been the case all evening, she maintained a strong grip, never letting the tension sag. At the very end, when Bruckner starts the ascent to the final apotheosis, I would have liked just a little more expansiveness in the tempo but, I think, this was of a piece with Ms Young’s clear-sighted approach to the music; she’s rightly wary of an approach that can tip over into mere rhetoric. Bruckner’s momentary easing-off the decibel count just before the very end is a last surprise for newcomers to this first version of the score but he still ends in the blaze of triumph that we know so well.

Stephen Johnson asserted, rightly, I’m sure, that the 1887 score is longer than the 1890 revision. Despite this Simone Young took about 84 minutes, which is about par for the course in my experience. However, I think that this was the result of setting tempi that never dragged yet without sacrificing the breadth and space that Bruckner’s music needs if it’s to make its impact. This was a superb exposition of Bruckner’s score and though I still believe the 1890 version is the one to hear I didn’t for one moment regret that we were hearing the original version; quite the reverse, in fact. Not only was this a magnificent performance, it was also a thoroughly intriguing one.

It seemed clear to me both during the performance and from the body language afterwards that Simone Young had ‘clicked’ with the orchestra. She was scheduled to make her debut with them in February 2013 when she’ll be offering an enticing programme of mainly twentieth century music. I’m looking forward keenly to that. In the meantime I’m off to acquire her CD of the Bruckner Eighth.


John Quinn


Details of forthcoming concerts in the 2012/13 CBSO series can be found here

For a second opinion, see Bruckner’s Eighth