Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Herbert Blomstedt's Bruckner 8th

To  relieve the tedium and stress of shifting house, I got me a recommended recording of Bruckner's Symphony no. 8. (Even for Bruckner, the piece has an especially complicated history of revisions, including some made long after the composer had passed from the scene; this seems to be the pure Robert Haas edition -- as if I could tell).

The recommendation was by Stephen Chakwin, in the May/June 2008 American Record Guide. To my way of thinking, Mr. Chakwin is the best reviewer of classical music in the business today. (He has another business -- he's a lawyer.)

The recording is of a live concert with Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. It was his farewell as the music director after several years of leading the orchestra in the '90s. I was in the audience for this same crew in Tucson when they were on tour.

My reaction on hearing it for the first time was a mixture of exhilaration and disappointment. The orchestra is world-class, although many other first-rate ensembles have played the symphony. Blomstedt is a gifted musician who doesn't indulge in eccentricities or exaggerated point-making. Many felicities of the score have been carefully polished. Strings and horns are partners, not adversaries, their colors mixing in extraordinary ways. For once, the harp in the Adagio actually seems to be part of the fabric of the music, not embroidery.

So what was disappointing? Comparisons are odious, but who can avoid them? My favorite versions have been Furtwängler (1944) and Karajan (1988), both -- interestingly -- with the Vienna Philharmonic. God bless Maestro Blomstedt, but he is no Furtwängler and he is no Karajan. Blomstedt's style struck me as stern, with too much stop-and-start even for music that incorporates pauses as a key element.

Of course I often change my mind after a first listen. I was keen to play the recording again after two days, a good sign.

Sure enough, I had a sudden insight that came to me long after it should have, much later than I expect most Bruckner enthusiasts have rumbled it. Bruckner lived and worked in the Romantic period of the late 19th century, but he is not a Romantic composer. (Even Symphony no. 4, nicknamed "Romantic," is at most so only in comparison with Bruckner's others.) The musical landscape at the time was divided into opposing camps, followers of Brahms and followers of Wagner. Bruckner, as I have read many times, practically worshiped Wagner. But the stylistic association somehow always escaped me.

You can play Bruckner in a romantic way, as Karl Böhm (also with Vienna!) and Bruno Walter did, and achieve wonders. But I've finally "gotten it" that Bruckner modeled his expression after Wagner. There is a difference, though: Bruckner absorbed Wagner's brilliant dramatism, but overlaid it with a spiritual dimension that was deeply important to him.

A good deal of Blomstedt's interpretation snapped into place the second time I heard his recording. Still, the great Adagio is too insistent and unloving -- if only he had treated it with the sweet delicacy he brought to the trio (the soft middle section) of the Scherzo! In a performance like this, we need relaxation and gentility in the midst of the rocky climb to beatitude.

The recording is remarkably true, especially considering it was taken in a live performance, probably one performance (many live recordings are patchworks from different nights). As Mr. Chakwin says, "You will have as close to a Bruckner orchestra in your home as your sound equipment can deliver."

The producer has insisted on the typically idiotic practice for live recordings of including applause -- both before and after the concert. At least he had the decency to put it on separate tracks so you can program it out.


YIH said...

A thought from Charles Hugh Smith for today.
Worth your time to read.

Steghorn21 said...

Great review. Bruckner is one of the great unsung maestros of classical music and at his best, is one of the most spiritually attuned composers of all time.

Rick Darby said...


Yes. Bruckner's symphonies would probably be more popular if they were more concise, but oftener than not their length adds a cumulative power.

I like what Robert Simpson, composer and Bruckner biographer, said: "Bruckner not only demands patience, he exemplifies it."