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A superb companion recording to the Eighth with the same forces
on 13 May 2014
I have already eulogised the Karajan Bruckner Eighth Symphony, made with and by the same forces the previous November; it is possibly the greatest recording of the greatest symphony in my collection but this last collaboration between Das Wunder Karajan and the orchestra that kept faith with him once his relationship with the BPO had broken down irretrievably is of the same standard and deserves to stand alongside it as a valedictory triumph.
You straight away notice the immediacy of the recorded sound and how it brings out the famous warmth and glow of the VPO. I have the older issue which is impressive enough but the remastering for the Karajan Gold label is by all accounts even better. As long as it is not edgy, digital sound was made for the combination of Karajan, the VPO and Bruckner; this is a demonstration disc and by no means the performance of a sick old man, being somewhat more propulsive and relaxed than the two previous Karajan studio recordings of this symphony, midway between the speeds of the fastest 1975 version and the slowest in 1971 - yet the differences in all three timings is marginal and certainly not noticeable; the hallmark of all three of Karajan's interpretation of this symphony is the grandeur and sonority of the performance; nobody does the climax of the first movement like Karajan.
Is the extra warmth of this recording perhaps the result of the stiff-backed old man letting go just a little of his famous iron control and simply letting the orchestra play music they love in the way they best know how? There is certainly no slackness in the beat or loose ensemble but you get the sense of the VPO breathing as one giant organism under the benevolent eye of a man who knew he was in the process of adding to his own already monumental legacy. The horns and violas in the principal theme of the Adagio have never sounded more hieratic or numinous and when Karajan lets the orchestra fly at 12:57 it is hard to imagine anything more transcendently, aurally glorious. The ebb and flow of Karajan’s phrasing in the finale is scarcely the work of a tired conductor whose powers were fading; indeed it is almost sprightly and the climax of the whole symphony is simply marvellous in its majesty.
Like several previous reviewers, I am familiar with and greatly esteem the earlier recordings but for me this one has the edge in terms of beauty of sound.