Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Tranquility of Touch or Intensity of Thought

Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 8

In this majestic but deeply human performance, recorded live in November 2017 at Munich's Philharmonie im Gasteig, Mariss Jansons and his Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks make a strong case for putting this work close to the top of all 19th Century symphonies. "My Eighth is a mystery," said Bruckner, and when he presented it to conductor Hermann Levi in 1887 it seemed an impenetrable one. After significant changes from the composer, it received its premiere in 1890, but its vastness and complexity were still a challenge. The mystery of the Eighth has been illuminated from time to time, by conductors such as Barbirolli, Karajan, Klemperer and Tennstedt (a favourite of mine), but perhaps each misses out on at least as much as it exposes.

Anton Bruckner's naive and mild manner and his obsequiousness in the face of his idol Richard Wagner (memorably illustrated in this silhouette by Otto Böhler) gives one the wrong idea of what to expect from this work. His 8th Symphony has all of the power and mystery and sensuousness of Wagner's Ring, set in a meticulously designed architecture. Most importantly, it tests the limits of Wagner's musical world, well before the future experiments of Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

"Today, says Tom Service, "Bruckner's Eighth should still be controversial. This is a piece that is attempting something so extraordinary that if you're not prepared to encounter its expressive demons, or to be shocked and awed by the places Bruckner's imagination takes you, then you're missing out on the essential experience of the symphony." This amazing insight goes to the heart of my concern about Jansons' highly humanistic interpretation, with consolation the keynote rather than pain. There is sorrow enough in the dark passages, of course, and power in the beautiful brass fanfares, but always the light shines through. I hesitate to complain about so beatific a performance, since I think today's world needs this as much as it needs anything. But the Masterpiece has its own needs.

Here, from a performance later that month in Brussels, is a lovely excerpt from the Symphony that illustrates Jansons' authority as well as his great charm and humanity.

I've been reading Nick Hunt's marvellous book Where The Wild Winds Are: Walking the Winds from the Pennines to Provence. At the beginning of his quest to experience the Mistral winds in the South of France, he quotes a letter from Vincent Van Gogh: "Aren't we seeking intensity of thought rather than tranquillity of touch?" Van Gogh's answer is clear, but Bruckner, I think, needs some of both.

This disc will be released on June 8, 2018.

1 comment:

  1. So, apart from Tennstedt which others are your favourites? I have a strong preference for Bohm and Wand/BPO (and of course Karajan, Giulini).