Vienna Philharmonic – 2

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

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 8 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

From Jascha Horenstein to Günter Wand, the Proms has witnessed some astonishing revivifications of Bruckner’s Eighth, “the biggest and grandest of 19th-century symphonies” as Andrew Huth’s programme note insisted.

Against a weird backdrop of piebald pink and clad in his trademark Mao suit, Christoph Eschenbach here performed something closer to an autopsy. At 85 minutes it was certainly “big” but its grave, stolid progress eschewed what is normally meant by grandeur. While the Vienna Philharmonic offered incidental pleasures too numerous to mention, the strings were rarely given their head – this was not an interpretation in which the argument is borne heavenwards on a homogeneous carpet of sound. Even so they produced some exquisite playing at low volumes. Like most modern interpreters, Eschenbach’s conception of the symphony avoided the visceral sense of struggle conveyed by the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Instead the aim seemed to be to present the argument as lucidly as possible, letting each paragraph succeed its predecessor without undue fuss or rhetoric.

I expected a spacious reading but not the lack of direction (whether structural or emotional) that made certain passages come across as didactic or merely dull. The mind wandered in the very hot hall, distracted by the latest menace, the amateur cinematographer equipped with a mobile phone. I began to think that some of the criticisms Eschenbach has encountered in Philadelphia might be justified after all. The antiphonally placed violins came into their own in the later stages of the Adagio, though it was a bit cruel of the programme to give us the English translation of the marking, “Solemn and slow, but not dragging”.

Slowest of all was the second movement’s Trio, but there the conductor’s careful tailoring may have been designed to point up the extent to which it was composed to function as a harbinger of the Adagio. There were some beautifully voiced solos from individual players, yet, in the outer movements I could not hear the woodwind in tutti – and I was allocated a good place, a seat prestigious enough for me to witness one of our senior critics berating a colleague for jiggling about too much. This occurred in the space between the first two movements, although there had been nothing particularly stimulating about a reading of the opening Allegro moderato so eerily subdued and controlled, so intent on exploring the darkest sonorities.

When Pierre Boulez was invited to conduct this work with the Vienna Philharmonic at the International Bruckner Festival in September 1996, he paid tribute to the contribution of his musicians: “From the very outset, I accepted that I would undoubtedly get more from the orchestra than they would get from me”. Eschenbach gave the music room to breathe but perhaps he needed to relax more. One felt that the luminous effect he sought was always just out of reach. What we got was less persuasive.

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