Symphony No.8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Haas)
SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden & Freiburg
Bruckner recorded in December 1990; Feldman in December 1997
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: HÄNSSLER
CD 93.061 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
Not for the first time, Michael Gielen scores points over starrier rivals. This is a magnificent Bruckner 8, as assured as it is monumental – a gritty reading with nothing taken for granted or overplayed. Gielen succeeds in conveying Bruckner’s ’agony and ecstasy’ while remaining true to symphonic discourse; he conjures a Brucknerian soundworld of rough-hewn beauty – there are no falsehoods in either timbre or expression. Tuttis are granitic and string tremolos hang in the air; Bruckner’s spirit and questing has time to breathe but is never somnambulant or static. Nothing is lost and everything seems to belong.
The open and detailed recording of Gielen’s 1990 No.8 is as lucid as his interpretation. His deliberate account of the Scherzo is cumulatively satisfying and the slow movement is radiant; throughout there is elucidation and identification – logic, resplendence and substance closely observed. The outer movements, respectively, set and resolve the Brucknerian agenda. The first is a genuine struggle to scale the heights before ultimate desolation; Gielen is one of the very few conductors that does not place a ritardando on the final bars – it is a clock stopping, which is exactly the effect here. The Finale begins in a blaze of sound, the timpani interjection is thrilling, and its good to hear the violins’ rhythmic pulse in sync; Gielen, of course, uses antiphonal fiddles. That he uses Haas’s edition is also in his favour – as the conductor says in the booklet note, it’s a shame to lose any music.
Make no mistake, this is one of the greatest accounts of one of the greatest symphonies.
The coupling, Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light, is also a masterpiece. Completed in 1986 for the New York Philharmonic, its searching beyond an “orchestral pedal” is fascinating, hypnotic in fact – colour, expression and timing are exquisitely judged . Its association with Bruckner is apt. While Bruckner seeks to attain, and his journey is effectively from earth to heaven, Feldman (1926-87) is equally timeless and dimension creating in his lateral traversal of two millennia – a distillation of music. It’s a haunting work, fastidiously crafted and wonderfully realised here.
As ever, Gielen’s penetrating and selfless focus on the music he conducts brings considerable rewards.