Symphony No.8 in B minor, D795 (Unfinished)
Symphony No.8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 28 November, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
November and December was to have seen – courtesy of Lorin Maazel – a veritable odyssey through the symphonic output of Schubert and Bruckner which, owing to pressure of work on the maestro’s operatic version of “1984” for Covent Garden (to be premiered on 3 May 2005), had to be downsized to the present coupling of the “Unfinished Symphony” and the Bruckner symphony that often used to be referred to as the ‘Apocalyptic’. A token, one might think, of what had been lost but which, on the basis of these performances, thankfully wasn’t to be.
Unusually these days, Maazel omitted the exposition repeat from the first movement of the Schubert – but, then, his almost casual way with the opening section suggested he might have been willing to dispose of it entirely. The development and coda were powerfully if often self-consciously shaped – mistaking histrionics for expressive depth in a way that became symptomatic of the concert as a whole. Flowing but never passive in its emotional profile, the Andante was more consistent – Maazel drawing a keen sense of anticipation from the elusive transition back to the main theme, though the coda’s harmonic side-steps felt over-emphatic in context. Perhaps, in bringing each of the movements out at virtually the same length, Maazel was intent on reinforcing the old ‘two movements so perfectly balanced that they could not possibly have been followed-up’ argument – which is no more plausible now.
Maazel has no mean track-record in Bruckner Eight, his 1989 EMI account with the Berlin Philharmonic being among the best played and most coherent modern recordings. Nor was there any doubting the overall excellence of the LSO’s playing, and if, as in the orchestra’s recent Mahler Seven with Boulez, trumpets and trombones tended to project beyond a realistic or, indeed, desirable dynamic level, at least balance within the overall orchestral picture sounded right. Not so some of the writing for Wagner tubas, which failed always to blend in with some of Bruckner’s most sonorous harmonies during the last two movements, while their substitution for certain horn parts in the opening Allegro moderato was a textural accretion that Maazel presumably thought worth making.
That particular movement was strongly but inconsistently rendered: individual thematic constituents shaped so that the follow-through of tempos was piecemeal at best, with the climactic tuttis at the centre and near the close making their impact through sheer dynamic power rather than tonal logic.
Similarly, the outer sections of the scherzo – underlying ostinatos either failing audibly to interlock or submerged altogether – had ample outward power but little inner energy; a failing compounded by the brusque, charm-less manner of the trio, its mysterious central passage emoted upon to a degree that suggested some strategic emphasis needing to be forced out rather than coaxed into prominence.
But it was in his crass, stage-managed approach to the Adagio that Maazel sacrificed any remaining interpretative integrity. Opting for Nowak’s edition of the 1890 revision (not the LSO programme book would have told you this!), with those sizeable cuts in the development that Bruckner sanctioned, places real emphasis on a conductor’s ability to gauge tempo relationships that, in terms of the movement’s underlying harmonic rhythm, are out of kilter almost from the outset. Maazel made it happen on his recording, 15 years ago; what emerged tonight was a distended half-hour of formal non-sequiturs and expressive crudeness, capped by a climax which played to the galley in the most sensationalist and non-Brucknerian way. A ‘quality’ not foreign to this conductor and which, in other repertoire, can be undeniably effective was here a travesty of the most cynical kind.
If the finale fared appreciably better, this was because Maazel at least saw the movement whole – drawing its individual themes into a tightly-knit if none too subtly-defined continuity, and channelling formal momentum so that the coda as focal-point of the whole work is made absolute. Yet there was little corresponding sense of emotional tension and release evinced in the development’s harmonic trajectory (one that the revision again makes harder to navigate coherently), while in the coda itself – flatulently prepared for – little sense of spiritual resolution emerged amid the extraneous bombast.
The reception – voluble and a partial ovation, yet generalised and curiously short-lived – mirrored the essence of the performance; and, more to the point, was rather what it deserved. Sad that certain punters will have departed thinking that they heard a great Bruckner interpretation. Whether Maazel was at all taken-in by his own deception is another matter entirely.