The best recordings of the greatest symphony

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

I am daunted. Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is a work that I regard with love, awe and even anxiety. I always wonder whether I’ll be able to cope with such large and deep demands on me and, if I hear a performance or recording that doesn’t disappoint me, be able to articulate why I find it so powerful, one of the supreme masterpieces of Western music, the greatest of symphonies.

With musical works that one has the strongest kinship with, there is, as everyone finds, an urgent need to locate the qualities that make it so penetrating an experience, combined with misery at the gap between how one responds and what one feels able to say. What I have usually done when I have been overwhelmed by Bruckner Eight, but still frustrated about being unable to express why I find it so wonderful but imponderable, has been to get another recording or listen to another broadcast or, as occasionally happens, attend a performance of it. (I was told recently by the manager of a great London orchestra that Bruckner is ‘a hall emptier’, compared with Mahler.)

But before suggesting a few versions of the Eighth, I’d better explain, for anyone who hasn’t had a close encounter with it, that there is actually no such thing as one work of that name. Bruckner, a miserable, insecure man, was always, or nearly always, prepared to listen to advice from ‘superiors’ about what was wrong with what he composed. The Seventh Symphony had been a great success, so he handed the Eighth to the conductor Hermann Levi with comparative confidence, only to receive the frostiest rebuff. That led him to revise extensively not only the Eighth, but several of the earlier symphonies, often unnecessarily. Actually, I think Levi was right to dismiss the first draft of the Eighth — as all the many available recordings of it prove.

The best of these is under Eliahu Inbal, who also recorded the earliest versions of the other symphonies. Once you’ve heard any of the revised versions — for Bruckner and others have gone on tinkering with the score for nearly 130 years — you’ll be deeply grateful to Levi.

I’ve accumulated, through commercial discs or ‘private’ issues or tapes, more than 90 accounts of the Eighth. One conductor’s performances of it have to be put to one side, since they amount almost to an autonomous work. They are Furtwängler’s — one with the Vienna Philharmonic from October 1944, another from the same forces ten years later, and two from the Berlin Philharmonic in 1949. All are in reasonable sound. The VPO’s are the most stunning accounts, one from shortly before Germany was defeated, the other from shortly before the conductor died. ‘Apocalyptic’ is the only word for them. I wouldn’t even claim that they are the most enjoyable accounts, but they are shattering in their impact, not so much through immense climaxes and Brucknerian pastures, though there are some of both, but thanks to a unique kind of austerity that Furtwängler conveyed in the last year or so of his life — and when he was sufficiently disturbed by his milieu at the end of the war. There is the sense that you are facing ultimate questions and demands.

Those performances apart, I have to say that the Eighth has fared extraordinarily well on record, though naturally there are some duds. Not surprisingly for so huge and varied a work, interpretations vary enormously. The average length of a performance is about 80 minutes, but Sergiu Celibidache stretches that to 102 with the Munich Philharmonic. The result, for me, is marvellous, but I can understand why someone might find it too much. Celi was a unique genius, who had an obsession with precise sonorities.

Of more central modern recordings I’d again warmly recommend the Vienna Philharmonic, under Carlo Maria Giulini. He is concerned both with beauty of sound and with structure, and if anyone were — unimaginably to me — to want only one recording of the Eighth, I would suggest that one. The symphony was a favourite of Herbert von Karajan, and the last he recorded, once more with the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s a perfectly managed account, of course, with some passages of luscious beauty and others of barbaric violence, the summum of his career.

Earlier great performances are to be found conducted by Jascha Horenstein, an inexplicably underrated conductor, and Reginald Goodall at the Proms. His cult status is easily understood in the light of this sometimes approximate account, but he has, as with his Wagner, an unfailing insight into the heart of this masterpiece.

Some of the old-timers who you might expect to be in tune with it now seem rather superficial, including, I’m afraid, Bruno Walter in New York, where large numbers of the audience can be heard leaving after each movement; and even Otto Klemperer, who made the first recording of the slow movement in 1924, sounds sclerotic. But there is no shortage of more or less successful climbers of this symphonic Everest.

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