BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in c minor – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Wilhelm Furtwängler – Praga

Superb, eminent readings of Bruckner’s darkest symphony under Furtwängler return with striking authority. 

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in c minor – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Wilhelm Furtwängler – Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350 133 (2 CDs) 77:04; 76:55 (1/5/18) [Distr. Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:  

This review is dedicated to the Spirit of John Sunier

Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler referred to Anton Bruckner’s 1884-87 Symphony No. 8 (rev. 1889) as “a battle of demons,” given its alternating, apocalyptic darkness and moments of transcendent light.  In several respects, the gigantic music parallels the Richard Strauss symphonic poem Death and Transfiguration, considering the motion of the first movement – a series of groping, perhaps abortive, kernels of melodic tissue that consistently avoid the tonic minor – to conclude in the minor key with exhausted, repetitive tropes in the violas.  Bruckner himself confessed that the music captures the feeling of one “on his deathbed, while opposite him the clock ticks away as his life comes to an end.”  This enervation from Death’s annunciation—Todesverkuendigung—comes, however, after a course of epic periods in which moments of supreme, mortal struggle occur, well in the spirit of Matthew Arnold’s clashing armies on a darkling plain. Because Furtwängler leads his “wife,” the Berlin Philharmonic, in an esteemed performance from Berlin (14 March 1949) as well as his “mistress,” the Vienna Philharmonic, in an equally cherished version (17 October 1944), Praga has decided to provide both readings in superlative sound restoration.

What might first impress about these two equally driven, even manic, renditions, lies in their relative consistency of shape and tempo.  The performances balance each other, with Furtwängler’s allotting slightly more breadth to the last two movements in Vienna, and more to the first two in Berlin. No less astonishing, the level of orchestral discipline and response from the two ensembles leaves no doubt as to their sensitivity and virtuosity to realize Furtwänglerr’s mercurial, volcanic demands, as well as those of the composer. The string, trumpet, and tympani work in the terror-ridden Scherzo movement bespeaks a desire to impel fate to one’s will, all the while meant as a portrait of the “German Michael,” a figure from rustic folklore. The third movement Adagio—rare in Bruckner in its placementachieves a sense of cosmic consolation through its cathedral-building edifice.  In D-flat Major, the slow movement enjoys a kind of Magdalen sensuality, permitting the paradox. Over tremolando strings, the brasses intone a thoughtful chorale that becomes at once bucolic and Gothic, radiant with numinous faith. Still, there are blistering moments that would not seem alien to the spirit of Wagner’s Tristan. Perhaps the interpretation from Vienna proves the more yearning and incandescently apoplectic, noting the politics of the circumstances. More contrariety erupts in the tumultuous, Teutonic Finale, in which an extended death-march confronts what has been labeled “blazing calm.” John Milton might well claim this music as the realization of “darknesse visible.”

Brahms, in a moment of sardonic candor, referred to the Bruckner symphonic cycle as “a series of boa constrictors.” And the Eighth, in particular, has suffered, not only a course of T.S. Eliot’s “visions and revisions,” but critical assassination from the very first performance in Vienna when Hanslick walked out after the third movement, dismissing its “nightmare” qualities. Intricate and colossal, the work defies traditional symphonic logic, so it requires a true acolyte to find an emotional threador better, steel cablethat unifies its competing energies. Wilhelm Furtwängleralong with such devotees as Knappertsbusch, Karajan, Celibidache, and Giulinibequeaths us a unique testament, twice, each as individual as it is universal.  Highly recommended, but not in quick succession.

—Gary Lemco

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