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"I don't know who or what it was, but it was not me."
on 9 February 2013
A much over-hyped recording; not a testament, as is so often implied, given its proximity to the conductor's death - so convenient for the biographers and eulogists. Karajan's actual final recording was issued in 1990, a Bruckner 7, a truly great and revelatory version. This Bruckner 8, as is not stressed in the latest DG Originals reissue, was one of his Telemondial video projects (you can get the DVD) and the preoccupation with visuals usually got the better of him.
I was tempted back because, no matter where I look, there is a flute solo in the first movement so beguilingly phrased as to eclipse all other recommendations. Sadly, one short solo does not make a proper recommendation, and the rest is surprisingly small scale, at its best in the 1st and 3rd movements but tedious in the scherzo and finale. The liner notes pay rich tribute to HvK's career as a conductor of this symphony, one that alongide the Brahms 1st was probably his favourite, but that isn't enough to make this 1988 version, reissued on 1 CD when previously issues on 2 CDs and at around £30, a primary recommendation. Warts and all, the 1975 Berlin recording is more exciting and the 1957 one is the grandest and boldest. A 1957 Salzburg broadcast with the VPO (Orfeo) is also highly recommendable for enthusiasts, fascinatingly distinguished from the EMI studio version.
Beyond Karajan, Gunter Wand's 87min Berlin recording (RCA) is a stupendous, barnstorming affair. Furtwangler, HvK's predecessor in Berlin, gives a performance of unique flexibility and effervescence (1944, Vienna), and despite using a corrupted edition, Hans Knappertsbusch was all over this symphony when he conducted the Berliners back in 1951. Bernard Haitink also gave of his best when put in front of the Vienna Phil back in 1995.