7 July 2018
A few introductory words on the br klassik label for those who have not encountered it before: founded to showcase the work of the BR Symphony Orchestra, the label opened to toots of acclaim with the first international release of Sir Frank Hornby’s Symphony die Nulte  directed by Sir Thomas Beeching and featuring Emmanuel Axe in the important concertante part. Collaborations in the United Kingdom with both the Virgin label on the west coast and ECM on the east led to naught , and the company’s next release of space-themed, film-based classics by the Strauss brothers, Richard and Johann under the baton of long-time BRSO music director Stanley Kubelik was in my opinion a signal failure. A charming disc of chamber works by Fleischmann provided smaller scale diversions before the label’s first opera release, Der fliegende Schotte which, while described by some as a sleeper, was, in my opinion more successful, both artistically and, apparently, commercially.
More recently, the label has featured a slew of outstanding recordings by the orchestra’s distinguished Latvian music director, Mariss Jansons, in repertoire ranging from the complete Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies to Mahler, Strauss and Bruckner. Also some tremendous, luminous Bach under Peter Dijkstra. The complete Bruckner Symphonies under Maazel offered a compelling if controversial traversal of this symphonic universe, and for this latest Bruckner release, the label has turned to the promising talents of newcomer Mariss Jansons of whom I had not previously heard. Tyro Mr Jansons appears to be Latvian and on this showing , seems to have the potential measure of this score, although he probably needs a few more years of experience.
Textually, the Bruckner 8th has a tediously complex history, but once assimilated, this information can be deployed to befuddle , patronise and ultimately bore Bruckner newcomers to wonderfully humiliating effect. I have often been to dinner parties where the assembled guests have been rendered speechless by my knowledge of the finer points of Haas and Novak, Schalk, Weyland and co. My chasuble is so full of antimacassars. Refreshingly, the box identifies the text used on this recording as the Fassung Version of 1890, and when I checked that out on Google images, I found some lovely images of electrical light fittings, so I guess Herr Fassung was an electrical contractor in his day job. As the insightful notes, by Jorg Handstein for the Bernard Haitink recording of the Bruckner Sixth on the same label, reminds us “Die Sechste ist die keckste” said the composer- “the Eighth is a saucy pair of trousers”. Will this Jansons character give us Levi 501s, Farah Slacks, or maybe something a bit more, shall we say, JD Williams?
The Symphony commences deep in the Austrian countryside, atmospherically, with octave strings in A, evoking dawn over the outback, clarinets and offstage trumpets hinting at the so called “skippy theme” that the young Bruckner would have heard those early mornings, sounding from the monastery next door, and which we will hear refulgent in glory in 80 minutes time. With the development section the mood changes violently, the side drum entering with the instruction to beat up the orchestra at all possible cost. Jansons handles this passage as powerfully, as he does the ensuing, surging sequence depicting Cleo Bruckner, which brings the movement to its emphatic, triumphantly ecstatic conclusion. Of rival recordings, only Karajan in Berlin 1944 set down the first movement of Bruckner’s Eighth [sorry, B8] with such éclat.
The second movement scherzo introduces themes derived from Bruckner’s 1883 cruise up the Amazon with Elgar , where amongst other things, the composers swapped risqué seminary anecdotes, discussed and argued their contrasting attitudes to “The Symphony”, and walked their dogs in the savage jungle. The passage when Bruckner’s dingo/St Bernard cross, Michael, jumps barking into the river, rattled both by a rogue gardiner and Elgar’s Rottweiler/Springer cross , Jeremy, is attended to with great sensitivity by Jansons. A puzzled crow, evoked with finesse in the bassoon [presumably Eberhard Marschall] circles high above the now silent moor, squawking, unnoticed and unregarded, oblivious to the fluvial chaos in the Amazon beneath. [note to self: do they have moors in Brazil? Check before posting- someone might award an unhelpful vote for inaccuracy.]
Not since Wilhelm Jahn have I heard the melancholy section for muted tuba and harp with which Bruckner concluded the movement, and in remarks to Kitzler, described as “like standing in a malign influence at the bottom of the garden”, performed with such revolting clarity.
The third movement adagio, marked “Feierlich langsam, docht nicht, schleppend” should bring balm, and so it does here, glowing with the luminosity of a slowly revolving Sirius A. Borne aloft on a cushion of luxury, the Bavarian strings effortlessly rise to the challenge, climaxes rising to the heavens as surely as thrice-pinnacled Broad Peak towers above Concordia. As the bard himself has it, spookily writing about Anton and Cleo Bruckner in 1606: “the triple pillar of the world transformed by trumpets cool”. Man.
And so to the finale, which should follow from these characteristically Brucknerian high jinks without a break-as it does here. The noble, moving main so called “swan theme” sounding like a jazzily syncopated, detuned version of the opening of Mahler 1 pirated from a programme note for Gurrelieder, and mixed with some bastardised vintage Edward Greenfield, contrasts with the famous but mysterious quotation from the William Tell overture. Then all is finally clear and, what we knew all along-that the symphony is grounded upon the granitic olympian theme of “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo”-rings out in the brass, a phalanx of Wagner tubas intoning the signature tune of “Barrier Reef” in magnificent brazen counterpoint. At once briskly marmoreal, brightly crepuscular, and yet as adamantinely flexible as a bag of haribo starmix. Only Sir Edward King endeavoured to navigate this difficult passage with such care and profound understanding.
With a frisson, or possibly fassung of schadenfreude I realise that it has become the norm for serious reviewers of Bruckner Symphonies on amazon to resort to a bit of cod German, leavened with some astronomical references, ideally Biblical, for “canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? We can imagine them any colour and shape we like, but of course we cannot hear them”.
How does this newcomer compare to the competition-does it beat other fassungs, and most importantly does it spin round faster? Does this recording have glorious klang or does it belong more properly to the Clangers? Why say “sound” when you can say “klang”? Olivier Messiaen or Oliver Postgate? Does “klang” have more klang than “sound”? Does polysemy have several meanings? Does the poor bloke with the painful case of the clap who ruins the conclusion of Mariss Jansons’ Bavarian Mahler 3, by shouting “ Bravo!” before the music has finished, ruin this one too? [he is in attendance , but takes four seconds to wake up this time].
And what would the Soup Dragon think?
So many questions. So, let’s ask the music trees….
The Bruckner Eighth has been lucky on disc. Naturally, no comparison would be complete without recourse to the great Dutch patrician, Bernard Haitink’s, three recordings, with the Concertgebouw in 1970, the Bavarian Radio Symphony [again] in 1985 and the Staatskapelle Dresden on Profil in 2006. All of which sound more like Bruckner 6 to me. The recent Remy Ballot is fine, if slow. Ballot’s is a unique recording in so far as it deploys the Gunnar-Cohrs edition of 2015. I am a sucker for Celi too, and his Munich recording is as lithe and well sprung as an Ikea mattress; talking of beds, a sleeper imho comes from Nagano in Berlin-likewise Stan his predecessor at the Hallé in Bruckner’s beloved Manchester, but on this occasion in Saarbrucken for Arts is well worth hearing. Christoph Eschenbach, often controversial, has essayed this symphony on several occasions and all of them are very fine-the recent LPO as good as any. If you can find a copy of Bongartz, it is worth the search, but probably not worth 46 pounds and seven pence. Eichhorn and Asahina have much to say. On the distaff side, I found Simone Young most persuasive, and I look forward to the forthcoming Gražinytė-Tyla which I am sure will gain a wide currency beyond the end of the Hagley Road; her 2016 Helsinki performance of the Symphony was seriously revelatory.
For a masterclass in how this symphony can be made to sound fresh and vernal, I commend the performance of the first movement featuring Rafael Kubelik and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks on Youtube. It is a source of considerable regret that this fine, Munich-based orchestra has not essayed the Bruckner Eighth on disc in recent years.
I especially enjoyed the Norrington , all the more for the wonderful description on amazon of Dr Konrad Schneckenhauer: “meaningless—a catastrophic betrayal” which sounds like one of my reviews. Not. Come on, Konrad, get a sense of perspective –it’s a record of slightly recondite symphonic music, directed by a bloke called Roger, that a possible 117 people maximum will buy.
It’s also very regrettable that as far as I know, neither Klemperer nor Karajan ever recorded the Bruckner Eighth-I would have loved to have heard their attempts. Maybe someone will come across some off air pirated recordings, and let me know?
Oh damn I have been writing about the Bruckner Sixth for the last ten minutes. Must have got confused or something. Not to worry.
So for this one? It’s time for this tiny Billy Goat Gruff to face the trolls and go trip trap trap. Eek. Scary. I don't post reviews of music on amazon or contribute to slippedisc or anything else so I clearly know nothing.
As the psalmist tells us there are not enough stars in the firmament to do it justice. Aldebaran and Betelgeuse would be dancing with joy-as would Cadmus, Dromos and Eltoobis. Herr Fassung and his band of engineers would be stringing the fairy lights out on LV-223, not to mention the Planet of the Klangers. Incidentally, if a Klingon married a Clanger would you get a Klanger or a Clingon?
And delivery was quick and all of the sprockets were intact, so that will be even more- unlimited stars. Blimey I can’t see now for stars. Or hear. Or perhaps I never could. I am after all reviewer number 767,676, but with your votes could get past 800,000.