The Royal Concertgebouw has launched a successful house label based on live concerts recorded in SACD. I own the regular two-channel CD version, but it sounds very good--fresh, detailed, and natural. The orchestra itself has never sounded better. On those grounds alone this performance would be a good listen. Haitink's Bruckner Eighth--a specialty I heard him conduct with the Vienna Phil.--is shaped with unaffected naturalness. That's always been Haitink's way with this composer, but years of maturity have added a patina lacking in his first version with the same orchestra three decades ago.
His low-key, lyrical approach is immediately evident in the first movement, which avoids the thundering climaxes we get from Karajan; the same holds true for the Scherzo, which is blissfully free of raucousness. But the touchstone of any Bruckner 8th is the sublime slow movement. Haitink's timing of 28 min. is very slow (Karajan takes 25 min. in his autumnal recording with the Vienna Phil, and Boulez, conducting the same VPOa, takes just under 25). Haitink is markedly less intense than either of his rivals, but I responded to his tender, inward approach--everything holds together through his masterful shaping of the line. The finale is robust without shaking the roof down as so many big-name recordings do, and the Concertgebouw's tone remains gorgeous throughout, never raucous or brash.
My description makes it sound as if Haitink is holding firm to familiar middle-of-the-road territroy, but this really is a wise reading. I'd rank it the best I've heard in recent years, as well as one of the best recorded.
P.S. in May, 2009 -- Haitink brought the Chicago Sym. to Carnegie Hall last week in the Bruckner 8th, and although now eighty and frail enough to use a cane, he remains as masterful as on this recording. I was also happy that I didn't embarrass myself by hearing a performance that didn't match reality. His Chicago performance had all the qualities and contours of the earleir one.