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Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 [Christian Thielemann, Staatskapelle Dresden] [Blu-ray] 
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Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden in a performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8, recorded in 2012 at the Semperoper.
Magnificently played,(possessing) a freshness and inexorable forward momentum that arrests the attention. --IRR, Jan'15
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Thielemann uses the 1939 Haas edition, which has been discredited over the past 20 years and isn't in print anymore. As head of the music collection of the Austrian National Library, Robert Haas took Bruckner's 1890 autograph score and blended into the Adagio and Finale some passages he liked from Bruckner's 1887 draft, passages Bruckner himself omitted when he revised it. Added in the Haas edition are 10 measures from the 1887 Adagio, about 40 seconds. Also, five small segments -- including one of two measures and two of four measures -- that Bruckner eliminated to tighten the Finale reappear. To accommodate these brief passages Bruckner himself cut, Haas apparently composed a few bars of his own to help sew his additions to the Finale together and threw out some measures of genuine Bruckner in the process. Thus, Haas manufactured a score Bruckner never knew.
In 1946, Haas was replaced by Leopold Nowak, who returned to Bruckner's autograph revision of the Eighth, but Nowak's edition wasn't published until 1955. By then, conductors such as Günter Wand (b. 1912) and Karajan (b. 1908) had already set their templates for the symphony according to Haas. Jochum, Böhm, and Celibidache were among those who chose Nowak when that edition appeared. Furtwängler had premiered the Haas edition but rejected it by the time of his final performance in 1954. (Because Nowak was not yet available, Furtwängler conducted an amalgamation of his own for that concert.) I'll take Nowak's restoration of Bruckner's own 1890 version if I can get it, but a Haas Bruckner Eighth beats heck out of no Bruckner Eighth at all.
Thielemann's first movement proceeds in a mostly routine fashion. All the correct notes appear in sequence, yet the movement does not reach for the peaks and depths of the best performances. Menace is palpable from the outset in Karajan's 1988 Vienna recording, heard best in its Japanese SHM-CD remastering Bruckner: Symphony No. 8/Schumann: S issued in 2013. Thielemann's opening is rather plain. Gerd Albrecht, in his 1994 recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Symphony No. 8 (2nd Version, Nowak) on Canyon Classics, creates magic in the horn solo at measure 140. Time stands still, like the posthorn's entry in the Scherzo of Mahler's Third Symphony. At 6:47 in Thielemann's recording, the playing is clean, but there's no halo of enchantment. In the movement's central section, Thielemann makes an unsanctioned and unnecessary accelerando, reducing the impact of the "Feierlich breit" (solemnly wide) at measure 117 (9:25). The Dresden horns ring out beginning at measure 240 (9:54), and the triple-forte climax at measure 245 (10:05) is nicely broadened. The delightful bassoon solo by Joachim Hans at measure 303 (12:01) is well caught by the cameras. The crucial "Annunciation of Death" passage toward the end of the movement, however, falls short of the holy terror achieved by the piercing trumpets in Wand's 1987 Lübeck Cathedral recording Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 and in Karajan's, missing the "Last Judgment" sense of inexorable doom.
The Scherzo suffers from some Thielemann modifications in dynamics and tempo. At measure 51 (18:36), he suddenly drops the volume from triple-forte to pianissimo, then raises it back up. It's a jarring, needless departure from the score. Around measure 90 (19:38), he makes a sizable and unmarked ritardando, again serving no purpose. When the figure from measure 51 comes around again at measure 185 (22:28), the bottom once more falls out of the volume, then swells up to its correct triple-forte level. It's as disconcerting as it was the first time. The Trio is lovely. It's wonderful to see and hear the harps that enter at Letter D (24:29). Bruckner wanted as many harps as he could get. Too often, we're lucky if we can hear even one. Thielemann gives us three. In the Scherzo's da capo, Thielemann repeats his volume changes at the spots where he did so the first time through, but dispenses with the unmarked ritardando. Instead, he opts for an unattractive, agogic slowing down at the very end. Perhaps Thielemann's toying with the Scherzo is not any more damaging than alterations made by other big-name conductors. Maazel in his recording with the Berlin Philharmonic issued in 1990 Bruckner: Symphony, No. 8 in C Minor makes no allowance for the "Langsam" (slowly) of the Trio, continuing the same pace as the opening Allegro moderato. In a puzzling move, Karajan practically turns the tempo relationships inside out, taking the main Scherzo quite deliberately, then speeding up at the Trio. Wand's way with the Scherzo is more convincing. His 1993 recording at Hamburg Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 and 2001 concert in Berlin Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 feature a less resonant acoustic than Lübeck's, which some listeners might find more pleasing. At first glance, Albrecht's time of 13:41 for the Scherzo might seem fast; but it's full of excitement, and the Trio is affecting and effective.
The liner notes explain Thielemann's use of "the controversial version by Robert Haas" by saying that "for Thielemann this is a 'more logical and more formally rigorous' version." Then, in the Adagio, how come he makes a 10-measure cut, from Letter D, measure 57 (39:37) to the tenor tuba solo at measure 67? (The liner notes also claim Furtwängler preferred the Haas edition, which is patently false.) Nevertheless, much of the Adagio is beautifully done. Again, the cameras show us the three harps -- at measure 26 (35:45), for instance -- though always from the same angle. The fine tenor tuba solo by Robert Langbein returns at measure 181 (47:08). The 10 measures Haas adds to the Adagio from the 1887 draft run from 51:02 to 51:50 here. (From 18:46 to 19:25 in Wand's Lübeck recording.) Listen to Albrecht at 18:53 or Kurt Eichhorn Bruckner: Symphony No.8 with the Bruckner Orchester-Linz at 17:16 or Karl Böhm at 19:42 Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 to hear any deficiency that might be present in Nowak's edition of Bruckner's own version.
As Thielemann nears the movement's great climax, one of the most glorious moments in all symphonic literature, he starts applying an unwritten ritardando two measures before Letter V (54:15) that at one measure before the outburst at Letter V (54:21) becomes slower, and slower, and ... even ... slow-er. Thielemann might as well put up a big neon sign that reads, "Here it comes, here it comes, this is it, here it comes, here it finally comes ... there it went, that was it, there it goes, say bye-bye, wasn't that nice, what's next?"
Phooey. I'll take it played straight through the way Bruckner wrote it.
Other conductors -- Giulini in his super slo-mo 1984 Vienna recording, Maazel in Berlin -- do something similar, and I wonder why. Evidently, they believe holding back will somehow boost the power of the movement's climax. It doesn't. Moreover, Thielemann tries to stretch out the climactic plateau longer than it can be maintained. It sags, like drooping taffy. Maazel is even more attenuated. Venerated Bruckner conductors such as Wand and Karajan and the Japanese master Takashi Asahina BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO.8(remaster)(2CD) knew such exaggerations were unnecessary. Wand's Lübeck denouement is so sweet, heavenly, unmatched (though Albrecht comes close). Thielemann just finishes the movement. As the camera lingers on him at the end, his countenance bears a sour look, as though he has developed indigestion.
The Finale hits like a freight train -- a runaway freight train, unfortunately. Thielemann's tempo violates the first metronome mark Bruckner wrote in his entire symphonic output, half note = 69 beats per minute. Why does this matter? Because it mattered to Bruckner, mattered enough for him to do something he'd never done before so his exact intentions would be understood. Thielemann's madcap rush is half note = 92 bpm. Karajan is one of the few who lands in the right ballpark -- but then he ignores Bruckner's second (and only other) metronome mark 69 measures later at Letter D, "Langsamer" (slower), of half note = 60. Karajan keeps the same pace he started with, thus wiping out the desired contrast Bruckner indicates he wanted. Albrecht, Böhm in his 1976 Vienna Philharmonic recording, and Giulini in his 1983 concert of the Nowak edition with the Philharmonia on BBC Legends Symphonies 8 / Semiramide Overture come closest to actualizing Bruckner's tempo instructions.
Thielemann has to back off from his opening charge, of course. But by halfway through the last movement, more taffy pulling is going on as phrases are tugged out of shape, dynamics are altered, accelerandos and ritardandos fly around hither and yon. The first Haas insertion in the Finale occurs at measure 210 (1:06:20), which always seems awkward to me. (This spot occurs at 7:06 in Wand's Lübeck recording.) The concluding coda should be a series of cumulative rocket explosions, such as Wand in his Hamburg recording and Otmar Suitner with the Staatskapelle Berlin Symphonies 8 on Berlin Classics achieve. For Thielemann, the orchestra produces lots of volume, but no fireworks burst in the air.
The Bruckner Eighth may well be too big for any single performance to embrace, but this Blu-ray is too expensive not to deliver more than it does. Superior audio performances of the Haas edition remain those by Wand, Asahina, and Suitner, whose 1986 recording has been reissued by King Records Suitner & Staatskapelle Berlin - Bruckner: Symphony No.8 (2CDS) [Japan CD] KICC-3536 in Japan. In addition to Albrecht, Böhm, Eichhorn, and Giulini's BBC recording, another outstanding rendition of the Nowak edition is provided by Riccardo Chailly (1999) conducting the Concertgebouw Bruckner: The Symphonies. On Blu-ray, Daniel Barenboim's 2010 concert with the Staatskapelle Berlin in the Berlin Philharmonie Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 In C Minor [Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin] [Accentus Blu-ray] furnishes all the strengths that Thielemann's lacks.