Symphony No.8 in C minor [Robert Haas edition]
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
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The second concert in Daniel Barenboim’s rather portentously titled “The Bruckner Project” with his Staatskapelle Berlin as part of Shell Classic International was just the Eighth Symphony. I say ‘just’, but the Eighth probably stands most effectively in solitary splendour, unyoked to a Mozart piano concerto (played and conducted by Barenboim in the first and third concerts) – a factor that may have explained a number of empty seats, although the performance was such that the audience couldn’t have felt short-changed.
From the faltering, barely shaped opening, it was clear that Barenboim – like Karajan, Haitink (until recently) and Wand using the more expansive Robert Haas edition (which he conducted from memory) that mixes the 1887 and 1890 versions – had the full measure of this huge symphony, with a rare appreciation, in spite of the uncompromising drama of the first movement, of its burgeoning sense of optimism. It doesn’t deal with the degree of catastrophe that makes the Ninth Symphony such a distressing work.
The oblique, restless beginning set the bar high for a first movement of great power and insight, which at the same time seemed almost reluctant to play its full expressive hand. There was a reserve to Barenboim’s approach matching Bruckner’s harmonic and structural ambiguities that make this music so endlessly involving. It offered a sense of spiritual freefall that Barenboim laid out with astonishing clarity. Like Haitink in this symphony, Barenboim was rigorous in not standing in the way of the music. He also revels in those basics of conducting Buckner – pace, pulse, tempo and rhythm that are inseparable; an unswerving sense of direction that has complete command of the highways and byways of Bruckner’s elaborate narrative; and the much-tested spiritual undertow that covers extremes of drama and Zen-like calm.
The sturdiness of Barenboim’s multi-faceted rapport with Bruckner came into its own in the slow movement, in which by some sleight-of-hand, or perhaps it was just natural humanity, you could intuit from the opening phrase (which evokes the shade of Schubert‘s Der Wanderer and all the baggage that comes with it) – subjected to any amount of Parsifalian anguish and hardship – that all would be well in the end and that the immaculately presented series of build-ups would secure resolution rather than crisis (very much the case in the Ninth). Just as importantly, it put the finale into brilliantly inevitable context, played with special warmth, lightness of touch and a suggestion of relaxation, preparing the ground for the extended blaze of C major.
Sometimes the Staatskapelle sounded a bit raw, with some ungainly entries, and I’d have loved to have known what Barenboim was saying to the desks nearest him in between movements and at the end – it didn’t seem that anyone was smiling. But this was natural, unforced Bruckner-playing and -conducting, and we were the better for it. Barenboim’s fans couldn’t wait to be upstanding, although they’d do that whatever he’d been playing.