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Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor
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When word got out that Pierre Boulez was planning to record the mammoth Eighth Symphony of Anton Bruckner, the reaction in some quarters was akin to the announcement that a leading Marxist intellectual had accepted the CEO position at General Motors. While Boulez has already acclimated the music world to his latter-day interest in the core symphonic repertory with his recent performances of Mahler, the sense of incongruity with Bruckner's mystical solemnity seemed too great a leap to expect from the famous apostle of the avant-garde.
Forget about those prejudices--Boulez's accomplishment here is arguably even more successful than his accounts of Mahler. It also offers a fascinatingly fresh view of the great symphonist, who some feel will finally come into his own in the 21st century. Stereotypes of Boulez's razor-sharp, "cerebral" bias don't do justice to the sensuous pleasure he can elicit from the Vienna Philharmonic's musicians, a detailed alertness to Bruckner's instrumental touches that are too often overshadowed by focus on his architectonics. Boulez, of course, has a command of the latter as well, and his brisk pacing of the Robert Haas compilation/edition creates a sense of momentum and flow that's particularly striking in his brilliant realization of the Scherzo and the Finale.
True, there's less of the "apocalyptic" (an epithet sometimes given to this symphony), of the crushing tragedy, one hears in Karajan's canonical interpretation or the fine version by Skrowaczewski, and Boulez's chary avoidance of pauses in the celestial Adagio cheats us of the near-death-experience-in-music that comes through in Celibidache's glacial but visionary concert recording. But that sense of detail--witness the balance of horns and strings in the Adagio's closing pages--counts for much. Moreover, this live recording gains warmth from the acoustics of the Abbey Church of St. Florian--where Bruckner served as organist, and where his body is buried--and benefits from excellent engineering. Ironic as it might seem, Boulez may indeed win new converts to Bruckner with this performance. --Thomas May
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I have other classically highly regarded versions which I love. But I confess this one by Boulez is the most satisfying. Everything is clearly articulated. So there is more to hear in this recording than in any of the others. Yet it doesn't feel to me that he loses any of the emotional intensity or expressiveness. And it bears many repeated listenings...
Probably the musically most precise and clear and articulated recording there is.
I did see one reviewer remark that it is, perhaps, too perfect. Well, if you are emotionally invested in Wandt's or some other exceptional recording, this is understandable. Nevertheless, this is highly recommended.
The Vienna Philharmonic, who have a rich history with Bruckner, play without restraint or confinement. They let the hatchet down and play with fire and intensity. I can compare Boulez's approach with that of Gunter Wand and Riccardo Chailly (who are my two favorite Brucknerians). He keeps a taut line on the orchestra and though he has been criticized in the past for being "emotionally cool" I can say that this is not the case here. If you don't walk away from this recording thinking "Why hasn't Boulez recorded Bruckner more often," then you clearly missed the sonic marvel that is this recording.
Without a doubt in my mind, a fine performance of the 8th. Highly recommended.
Another reason this recording stands out is because it is so direct, yet still conveys a tremendous amount of warmth and humanity. The first movement has wonderful flow and intensity, even if the climax isn't quite as overpowering as with Karajan or Wand. The Scherzo has a real galloping quality thanks to the brisk pace, and even the slightly faster than normal pace for the Adagio does not detract from the depth and intensity. The climax of the Adagio is overwhelming and the final bars are incredibly serene, with the string basses resonating grandly and the horns floating above the din as if they were coming down from Heaven itself. The final movement is handled superbly as well, while the finale is the best I've ever heard with a tremendous build up and final release, with every detail coming through well.
The fact that this amazing performance captures the entire version without any cuts, all on a single CD, makes for a very convenient way to hear all of Bruckner's wonderful music without having to pay $30 or switch CD's half-way through the symphony. Like with any work or composer, however, it is all about opinions and preferences, and one's best can be another's worst. With a work such as this, there is room for many interpretations as there are so many wonderful conductors with something to contribute. To my ears, this is easily on par with the popular recordings from Karajan, Wand and others.