BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini – Testament (2 CDs)

by | Feb 15, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini

Testament SBT2 1436 (2 CDs), 33:27; 51:46 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:


The concert at the Philharmonie, Berlin 11 February 1984 might well have constituted a holy pilgrimage for many listeners, as witnessed by this mighty performance by guest-conductor Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) as he led Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. The scale of this work (1885; rev. 1890) has tempted some to nickname it the “Apocalyptic” Symphony. Its leanings toward Beethoven’s Ninth as a source for musical and emotional resonance has been noted, along with its scoring of brilliant trumpet riffs and Wagner tubas–and quotations from that composer’s The Flying Dutchman–to add mythic dimensionality to the grand periods of the two outer movements. What marks the first movement–and provides the challenge to the interpreter–are the obsessive repetitions of blazing sequences of sound based on the opening motif, an obsessive hammering that must avoid becoming a colossal anticlimax to the tri-partite structure that attempts to maintain it. Giulini manages to impress the often solemn processional and storming at Heaven’s Gate with a palpable optimism, a vision of a brighter tomorrow.

The blazing Scherzo, Bruckner’s longest, has the BPO trumpets incendiary, layered forces in ¾, with extremely clear articulation in the ominous tympani, low basses and cellos. The responsive clarinets, oboes, and flutes of the secondary theme ring with an ethereal light, a devout pantheism to assuage the vehemence of the rhythmic furies inherent in the opening motif. The Trio urges a heartfelt melody over plucked strings, the French horns, harp, and trumpets adding a touch of heroically mystical Alpine color. The great E-flat Major Adagio–marvelously sustained by Giulini for twenty-seven minutes–might be a paean to the work of Hermann Hesse, with his hermetic penchant for worldly renunciation. The original tune bears resemblance to Schubert’s “The Wanderer” Fantasy, except that Bruckner culminates with step-wise, ethereal chords in strings and harp. The ascending chromatic line takes on an increased luminosity and warm pulsation, the plaint a huge psalm after the Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth.

Among Bruckner’s most tempestuous, aggressive finales, this complicated colossus asks much of the inflamed BPO, which alternately gallops and strides into Valhalla, utilizing virtually every motivic impulse from prior movements. Hymn and march are so thoroughly integrated into the thematic tissue it is hard to say where bombast and heroism differ.  Bucolic elements insinuate themselves into the fervent brew, but even here the tympani anticipates a chromatic darkly hued line not distantly related to Bach’s Adam’s Fall, only so “redemptive” chords can intimate a weaving road to salvation. The fugal sections emanate both lucidity and dramatic force, always anticipating the recurrence of the mammoth sonorities of the fierce opening fanfares. The powerfully modulated coda, inexorably moving to a C Major peroration, enjoys the benefits of Giulini’s patient exploitation of colors, his genuine capacity to find lyricism and song even in Bruckner’s occasionally stolid vehemence. A Bruckner Eighth for the ages, this one.

— Gary Lemco

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