Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 revision, edited Leopold Nowak)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 4 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
Coming on the composer’s 199th-birthday (what bliss 2024 will surely be for Brucknerians) the Eighth had this Prom all to itself. Accordingly, Semyon Bychkov gave an unhurried survey of it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (the movements clocking in at around 18, 15, 27 and 24 minutes for what it’s worth – a stately 85 minutes or so in all, in this edition of the 1890 version by Nowak that is actually slightly shorter than Haas’s) without particularly emphasising the grandiose in this largest of Bruckner’s complete Symphonies. Rather there was a reflective, restrained sense of resignation or wistfulness, sometimes weariness, carried across the BBCSO’s beautifully wrought melodies – it’s not so often that Bruckner sounds quite so songful and as though influenced by opera, even in the more determined first theme of the Scherzo.
If the great Adagio springs from the same syncopated rhythm as the mystical love duet of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde, overall it was something more of the serenity (even if won through experience and suffering) of Parsifal which prevailed – at least in the first three movements. The climax of the Adagio third was certainly glorious and arose naturally from all that went before. But that and the climaxes in the Symphony up to that point weren’t especially searing or apocalyptic. The unison brass notes towards the end of the first movement (before it subsides into its grim ‘deathwatch’ coda) registered more as brittle and defeated than stark or defiant.
Drama came with the Finale – as it should, if not previously in the Symphony – right at its thumping outset. That was then sustained not only within the subsequent turbulent sections of that movement, but also between the contrasting quieter passages, which fell back into the earlier state of comparative repose. Somehow the soft focus of the latter, calmly creeping in each time, didn’t hold up the musical argument. Instead, on the analogy of the ‘cathedrals in sound’ it was as though, having traversed the long nave of the first three movements in a more or less uniform style, that was now more dynamically intersected with a different sort of architectural character and rhythm, to generate successfully a new narrative tension and urgency in the last movement, carrying it on to the Symphony’s conclusion – the point at which the true climax is reached in the wonderful torrent of themes in its coda, rather than the generously expansive climax of the Adagio here.
It was an intriguing and refreshing combination of elements, taking the long view, but integrated into a satisfying unity. Some blurred sonorities from the horns, and a couple of garbled entries by the woodwind in the Scherzo (at different points in its first statement and recapitulation respectively) were fairly incidental accidents (three or four ringing mobiles from the audience were less excusable). Some may prefer a grander, richer account of the work. But this had grace and an inscrutable logic of its own.