Symphony No.8 in C minor [1887 score, edited Leopold Nowak]
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 16 July, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
This was the third of four concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra entitled Bruckner: (R)evolution, given as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2011. Franz Welser-Möst provided a rare opportunity to hear the first version of Bruckner’s monumental Eighth Symphony, completed in 1887. Bruckner revised the score in 1890, perhaps prompted by suggestions from presumably well-meaning friends (principally Joseph Schalk), although the composer’s contemporaries contend that he usually resisted outside influence. Substantial cuts, particularly in long stretches of repeating rhythmic patterns, tightened the structure and shortened the symphony. The scoring of the 1890 version is fuller and more grandiloquent, with subtler textures and harmonies.
Nowak also edited the 1890 score. However, in 1939 Robert Haas published his edition of the Eighth, principally based upon 1890 but including passages from 1887. Haas claimed that Bruckner was deeply wounded by Hermann Levi’s rejection of the 1887 work. Levi, who had conducted the premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal, had been asked by Bruckner to conduct the first performance of the Eighth Symphony. As a result of this setback, Bruckner agreed to substantial cuts and other revisions. In putting together his edition, Haas took passages from both versions, but dispensed with some features of the 1890 revision, claiming that they were accepted by Bruckner against his better judgment. Although Haas restored significant passages from the original version, principally in the Adagio and finale, he also discarded others. Haas’s failure to provide explanations for his choices resulted in accusations of dubious scholarship. Yet his edition grew in popularity among Bruckner conductors, even if Nowak’s edition of the 1890 score is more-frequently chosen nowadays.
Welser-Möst is an advocate of the 1887 score, despite its monotonously lengthy sections of repeating rhythmic patterns. This judgment may have intellectual merit, but inordinately long stretches of repetition can become unendurable, whether they serve the work’s overall design or not. This problem occurs all-too-often in the earlier score. As with so many original versions, it is worthwhile to hear Bruckner’s first published thoughts, which include a loud ending to the first movement, differences to scherzo and trio, and a sextet of cymbal clashes at the Adagio’s climax.
On the surface, this performance had much going for it. The Cleveland Orchestra played superbly. The strings produced a rich, vibrant sound, particularly impressive in the soulful strains of the Adagio and the fervent passages of the finale. Woodwinds were especially bright in the scherzo. Although horns and Wagner tubas suffered from imprecise entrances, the purity of tone displayed by horns and Wagner tubas in soft, meditative passages was a model of how they should sound. The usually well-honed trombones and tuba could have tightened up their articulation. The entire brass compliment seemed to be held in reserve until the finale when it rose to the occasion with mighty blasts that filled the hall.
Welser-Möst’s tempos were all perfectly appropriate, if sometimes too rigid. He concentrated on shaping lyrical lines and giving Bruckner’s accent markings their due. The scherzo was alive with vitality, and the violins’ theme in the trio was fluid yet slightly lingering, and played the Adagio’s heavenly theme that rises into gorgeous hymn-like chords graced by harp arpeggios beautifully, and the cellos’ exquisite legato when they took up the main theme was captivating. Yet the climax didn’t quite reach the heights, mainly because the gradual build-up to it lacked sufficient tension. This is a significant problem, especially in the long-winded 1887 version. In order to make Bruckner’s extended approach to a climax work, the conductor should gradually increase the intensity without losing control of the tempo. It is equally true in the finale if powerful sections are merely loud but lack goal-driven urgency. Otherwise, this performance did contain some stirring moments and provided a rare opportunity to judge the merits and de-merits of Bruckner’s original conception.