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This review is from: Bruckner: Symphony No.8 (Audio CD)
Not all of Karajan's almost obsessive re-makes are by any means an improvement on what came before but this, his penultimate Bruckner recording from November 1988 (the Seventh was recorded in April 1989) and one of his last studio recordings before his death in July of the following year, is undoubtedly one of his greatest.
Indeed, some would call this the greatest recording of the greatest symphony by the greatest conductor and I'm not going to bother to debate that highly contentious claim; I would merely say that it represents a distillation of everything both the composer and Karajan were trying to achieve, and is one of the most profoundly moving and spiritually uplifting recordings in the entire canon.
First, a few canards to dispose of. The sound is superb; not at all typical of the thin glassy, screechy early digital recordings which too often appeared in the 80's but is rather rich, warm and full with a remarkably good combination of balance, transparency and warmth. The virtuosity of different sections of the VPO emerges clearly, especially the Wagner tubas and the trumpets and horns combined at the end of the first movement. The dynamic range is ideal; pianissimi whisper and fortissimo tutti thunder without distortion.
Nor is this by any means an especially slow or indeed in the least lethargic account. True, Karajan is not as quick as the nervy, Romantic Furtwängler (who uses his own edition of the 1892 first performance score) in 1944 with the VPO, or Maazel (who uses the shorter Nowak edition, in any case) with the BPO in 1989. Karajan is in fact faster in the last two movements than in his famous 1944 recording with the Preussische Staatskapelle Orchestra (missing the first movement and the last movement, astonishingly for 1944, in stereo Bruckner;Symphony No.8 - see my review) or the equally celebrated 1957 account Bruckner: Symphony No.8 - again, see my review) even though he is using the 1890 Haas edition with more cuts restored than in the 1892 performing version. Wand, using the original score of 1887 is the longest and slowest, even if that does exert a hypnotic fascination of its own, with its aureola of sound and the effect of waves incessantly washing ashore.
Finally, there is not a trace of the supposedly "smooth, homogenised" sound Karajan was accused of imposing on the Berlin Philharmonic or indeed any orchestra he conducted post 1970. This is vibrant, thrilling playing of enormous impact.
The climax of the first movement at 9' is overwhelming in its intensity, as is the culminating highpoint of the Adagio at 20'; the music unrolls like some celestial landscape before the listener and the sumptuous of the orchestral sound is extraordinary; the VPO simply sings in one great, corporate voice. To take but one example of the magic they create: listen at 7' 10" to the gentle soughing of the horns over pizzicato low strings, repeatedly punctuated by the flutes - magical playing.
Karajan knew how to make Bruckner's music breathe; he was a master of the long line and never lets the tension sag in this magisterial account. There is a sense of harmony and unanimity of purpose about this recording, perhaps enhanced by Karajan's knowledge that he was not long for this world, which infuses it with a special, transcendent quality suggestive of the next. Hear it for yourself.