A Fine Bruckner 8 – But Not As You Might Know It

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bruckner: Philharmonia Zurich, Fabio Luisi (conductor) , Zurich Opera, Zurich. 27.9.15 (JR)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (Original version, 1887)

This was the first “philharmonic” concert given by Zurich opera’s orchestra this season and it featured my favourite symphony by my favourite composer, Bruckner’s glorious Eighth. So not to be missed.

The orchestra clearly relished climbing out of the somewhat dingy pit onto the brightly-lit stage (evoking the Hebrew slaves in “Nabucco”) to show off their normally invisible shiny shoes and get their teeth into some “proper” symphonic music, rather than principally accompany singers. Bruckner’s Eighth was however going to be no mean feat, a mountain to climb, even though they are acquainted with the music of Wagner’s operas. Luisi made the orchestra’s task more difficult by proffering Bruckner’s original version.

I’m afraid I now have to get a bit technical and discuss versions. As many will know, Bruckner was a great one for revising his symphonies, with only few exceptions. He composed and finally orchestrated his Eighth symphony in 1887 and sent the score to the conductor Hermann Levi, one of his closest collaborators. Levi had just performed the Seventh symphony to great acclaim. Levi had organised financial assistance for Bruckner from Austrian nobility and secured an honorary doctorate for Bruckner from Vienna University. However Levi wrote:

“…..as much as the themes are magnificent, I find the working-out dubious and the orchestration impossible. Don’t lose courage, think about it, talk it over with friends such as Schalk, maybe a re-working can achieve something”.

Bruckner, whilst naturally depressed at the criticism, took this to heart and spent the next two years on a substantial revision which came out in 1890 and is sometimes known as the “Bruckner-Schalk revision” or the “second version”. In the twentieth century two rival Bruckner-loving musicologists, Haas and Nowak, worked on the score and produced their own versions; in particular the Haas version has been very well received and is more familiar to music-lovers today than all the other versions. The original version is rarely performed, although it has been recorded by the likes of Fedoseyev, Inbal, Tintner, Gielen and Welser-Möst.  However, to my mind, Levi got it right: the original version has some crude passages, too much repetition and needed to be made more compact. Highly esteemed Bruckner conductors such as Haitink, Karajan, Wand and Jochum have agreed with Levi and preferred the Haas version.

Listening to the original version today is like a High-German speaker listening to Swiss-German. You recognise the main themes but the detail often seems to be odd, which is, to say the least, annoying. However listening to the original Bruckner 8 version is, I will admit, academically interesting; Luisi in the programme interview says he performs both the original and the later 1890 (second) version and given a chance to conduct Bruckner 7, 8 or 9 will “drop everything”.  A man after my own heart.

A performance of Bruckner 8 can last anything between the usual 80 minutes (Haas version) to 104 minutes (the original version); in Zurich Luisi clocked in at a leisurely 94 minutes.

An opera orchestra has to be augmented considerably to tackle a Bruckner symphony, especially one employing Wagner tubas. (At least in the original version of the 8th, Bruckner only used double woodwind rather than treble woodwind, which gives the work a more austere aspect). Inevitably, bringing in many “outsiders” (the programme acknowledged 17 of them) brought slight problems of ensemble and occasional rough edges; one sensed one was not listening to a fully-integrated symphony orchestra. The horns in particular (apart from the principal) had rather an uneven evening; accolades however should go to the cellos and trombones who were glorious.

Having got those negatives out of the way, I have to say the performance was fine. Luisi clearly adores the work and enthusiasm oozed from his every pore. Indeed in the final movement I thought he was on fire. (He has oodles of energy: he is in between conducting performances of Wozzeck and Falstaff, heaven knows where he and the orchestra found the time to rehearse this work). In the opening movement, he enjoyed building up the power repeatedly and then letting it subside. In the Scherzo all eyes were on the timpanist, who at the end of the work received, by far, the loudest cheer for her rhythmic and dynamic contributions.

Luisi chose to take the slow movement very slow indeed, once becoming “schleppend” against Bruckner’s instructions; the movement rather outstayed its welcome. The outer sections are recognisable from later versions but the central Trio is almost unrecognisable. Six cymbal clashes at the movement’s climax (rather than the usual one) came over as simply crass. Slowing the tempi did however bring out Bruckner’s kinship with Wagner; the three harpists were magnificent.

It all made for fascinating listening; but I’ll stick with the Haas.

John Rhodes

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