The symphonies of Anton Bruckner are massive, sprawling, Wagner-influenced works from late in the Romantic period; Bruckner struggled with his own self worth, and he took criticism of his symphonies badly. After the triumphant reception of his Seventh Symphony in 1883 under conductor Hermann Levi, he received much acclaim, and immediately began work on his Symphony No. 8 – his most massive and complex work yet. When Bruckner presented the completed symphony to Levi, he was befuddled by its sheer size and complexity, and rejected it; Bruckner took this badly, and started a lengthy period of doubt regarding his finished symphonies. He soon began revisions – often ill advised by current and former pupils – and made massive cuts and changes to many of the symphonies. The Eighth suffered probably the most from this process, and after his death, there was a great deal of scholarly debate regarding which version – his original score, or the second revision, dated 1890 – was his chosen, or correct performance version. In 1939, Robert Haas, head of the International Bruckner Society, released the version he claimed was the closest to Bruckner’s intentions; it restored many of the cuts Bruckner had made in his second revision. Later Leopold Nowak insisted that Bruckner’s second revision – the version heard here – ultimately reflected the wishes of the composer. The debate still rages to this day, and just about every recording of this intimidating work alternates between the Haas and Nowak versions.
This recording is sourced from a 1971 studio session Karl Bohm made with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Bohm made numerous broadcast recordings of many of Bruckner’s symphonies, but this is his only studio recording of Bruckner I’m aware of. This version clocks in at 76 minutes, compared to the typical Haas version that generally clocks in at a tad under 90 minutes, and generally requires two CDs. The sound quality is really quite good for a recording that’s thirty-plus years old, and I’d guess that it was a minimally miked affair, because it’s sound is quite natural and doesn’t sound nearly as congested as many of the multi-miked classical recordings of the same vintage.
The bottom line here really stems from your personal preference, and whether you’re a Haas or Novak kind of guy. Personally, I prefer the Haas edition; my reference recording pairs legendary conductor Jascha Horenstein with the London Symphony Orchestra in a live date from 1970 (on the BBC Legends label); the sound is comparable to Bohm’s, but typical for a live recording, quite a few coughs intrude on the proceedings. Horenstein just had a way with Bruckner, and I’m definitely in the “give me more of a good thing” camp. However, we’re pretty much splitting hairs here – Bohm’s performance is superb, I just happen to personally prefer the Haas edition, and Horenstein’s performance – warts and all – is sublime.
While this disc is obviously aimed at Karl Bohm completists, it still offers a really good performance in really good (for the era) sound. Recommended.
— Tom Gibbs