Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin reached what many consider the pinnacle of Bruckner’s completed Symphonies, the Eighth. Although not as polyphonically complex as the Fifth or as structurally cogent as the Seventh, Bruckner had no doubt that his Eighth was simply the best Symphony that he wrote. Notwithstanding its deeply moving spirituality, there has been some confusion as to its meaning. Robert Simpson suggests that the numerous references to motifs have much in common with those related to Siegfried in Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Cycle. Since in the eponymous music-drama and Götterdämmerung they connote heroism in the face of adversity, Simpson presumes that such is the theme of the Eighth. Hugo Wolf considered Symphony 8 a dramatization of “the complete victory of light over darkness.” But when Bruckner sent the score to his good friend Hermann Levi (who had conducted the premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal five years earlier), hoping he would give the first performance, Levi confessed that he simply did not understand it. Consequently, well-meaning friends of the composer, particularly the Schalk brothers, suggested what were radical revisions, some of which Bruckner accepted. Thus began the complicated matter of various versions that resulted in more confusion than resolution.
The performance was magnificent, a perfect combination of dramatic power and sublime lyrical expression. Barenboim’s approach to tempos was traditional, adding intensity to Bruckner’s long crescendos without pushing the pace severely. The Berliners were consistently outstanding. Strings produced a rich, vibrant sound, enhanced by Barenboim’s brilliant shaping of phrases. The brass, embellishing with more instruments than are called for in the score, gave full measure to the glorious heaven-storming passages, rendered with stentorian power and a consistently noble tone, especially during the highpoint of the Adagio, the majestic rising arpeggio chorale from the first movement in the movement’s sky-opening climax, an all-too-brief glimpse of the eternal, and horn-player Ignacio Garcia deserves special mention for his fine solos. Woodwinds sounded bright and well-balanced so that inner voices came through. Oboist Gregor Witt and clarinetist Matthias Glander also made outstanding contributions.
Most significantly, Barenboim avoided a tendency, manifested in other Bruckner performances, to press forward during long build-ups that can disaffect tempo consistency. Yet he generated such energy and intensity that the effect was overwhelming. His general approach was straightforward, but he imbued the work with a masterful combination of subtlety, blazing power and poignant expression. From the dramatic heights of the outer movements, the spirited motion of the Scherzo and the tender melody that opens the Trio, to a sublime Adagio, deeply devotional, this was a performance that will long remain in memory.