Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version edited Robert Haas]

Bamberger Symphoniker
Herbert Blomstedt

Reviewed by: Sybille Werner

Reviewed: 14 July, 2006
Venue: Max-Littmann-Saal, Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen, Germany

Founded in 1986, the “Kissinger Sommer” Music Festival takes place annually from mid-June to mid-July in the five halls of the “Regentenbau” – which was built between 1911-1913 and named in honour of Luitpold, prince regent of Bavaria – a monastery, and various churches in and around the German spa town of Bad Kissingen.

This year’s programme consisted of more than 50 concerts, featuring new talent as well as a host of internationally-known artists including soloists Sabine Meyer, Jochen Kowalski, Waltraud Meier, Franz Peter Zimmermann, Mischa Maisky, Heinrich Schiff, Evgeny Kissin and Lang Lang, and the Vienna Symphony with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with Kent Nagano, the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Lawrence Foster and its new chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, and the Philharmonia Toscanini with Lorin Maazel.

Herbert Blomstedt, recently named honorary conductor for life by Bamberger Symphoniker, brought the orchestra from their nearby home to the Max-Littmann-Saal, the Regentenbau’s main auditorium, to perform Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. The hall, in the classic shoe-box shape with one surrounding balcony, seating capacity only 1160, theoretically seemed too small to handle the sound of the large orchestra and enlarged brass section this work requires; however, it has a rather high ceiling and is panelled in cherry wood throughout, lending great warmth to the sound. Even the loudest moments were never unpleasant, which I attribute as much to the ameliorating factors of the auditorium as to the skill of the conductor and musicians. Blomstedt elicited a rich, warm string tone throughout (using antiphonal seating for the violins), perfect balance in the woodwinds, and he never let the brass turn shrill or overpowering.

One would expect a patrician reading of this monumental symphony from the 79-year-old conductor, who considers this to be the greatest symphonic work of the late 19th-century. Bruckner is often treated with almost religious reverence, cathedral-like vast expanses of sound simply allowed to unfold. Not so on this occasion. Blomstedt, who also chose this symphony, in Robert Haas’s edition, for his final performance as Music Director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig last year, clearly has a deeply personal connection to this work. Conducting from memory, he was passionately involved with every detail, while never losing sight of the long lines and monumental overall structure. So compelling was the narrative that the 80+ minutes seemed to pass in a flash.

The third movement, marked ‘Adagio: feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend’ (solemnly slow, but not dragging), was taken slower than it is usually played, but even here Blomstedt spun such a long, continuous line throughout that one’s attention never flagged, and the audience seemed completely absorbed. The conductor managed to integrate the five major sections without sacrificing contrast, balancing the ‘heavenly’ cello theme with the outbursts in the brass and leading inexorably to the climax, the deceptive cadence punctuated by the only appearance of the triangle and cymbals. After this outburst, the Wagner tubas in the coda seemed like balm on the soul.

Blomstedt’s overall approach was apparent from the very beginning of the symphony – beautiful nuances and flexible phrasing, great attention to balances and inner lines, transparency, and strict adherence to Bruckner’s terraced dynamics, all within the framework of the overall structure. The only minor complaint, possibly due to the limited size of the hall, would be that the soft dynamics often projected too much: there were very few real pianissimos.

Like Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, Bruckner for the first time here followed the opening Allegro with a scherzo, which in less skilled hands can disintegrate into a series of repetitive phrases. Blomstedt kept a legato line going throughout, directing the listener’s attention to the larger divisions within the movement instead. In the finale, ‘Feierlich, nicht schnell (Solemnly, not fast), the conductor again went to the outer limits of Bruckner’s tempo indications. While in the Adagio he had explored the slower spectrum of ‘Feierlich’, here he rather moved things along, while still retaining the character the composer had asked for. It was a glorious finale, passionate string passages, triumphant brass fanfares, stately chorales, and everything finally coming to a close in the ‘transfiguration’ of the coda.

A performance of such intense personal involvement by conductor and orchestra does not happen very often, and the performers and audience clearly were exhilarated afterwards. It was an evening to treasure.

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