INKPOT#81 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BRUCKNER Symphonies Nos.8 & 9. BBC and London Symphony Orchestras/Horenstein (BBC Legends)
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No.9 in D Minor*
“live” recording at Royal Festival Hall, London, 2 Dec 1970
Symphony No.8 in C Minor
“live” recording at Royal Festival Hall, London, 10 Sep 1970
BBC Symphony Orchestra*
London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Jascha Horenstein
BBC Legends BBCL 4017-2
2 discs [76:02 + 66:20] mid-price
by Marc Bridle
These recordings from the BBC archives in London are welcome in two respects. Firstly, they bring to the catalogue very fine interpretations of Bruckner’s two greatest symphonies, in good sound; and secondly, they show in mesmerising form one of the century’s great champions of Bruckner’s music.
One of Horenstein’s earliest memories of Vienna was a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Arthur Nikisch, then Europe’s greatest conductor of the Austro-German Romantic repertoire. He never forgot that experience and it clearly shaped his own devotion to Bruckner. These ‘live’ recordings, particularly that of the Ninth, reveal an understanding of Bruckner’s colossal architecture that only a few conductors have shared: Klemperer, Celibidache, Furtwängler and Schuricht.
The Ninth Symphony might have ended up as Bruckner’s greatest achievement had he lived to complete it. As it stands, the torso is rather like an opulent sandwich, a tight Scherzo of quite macabre vision, placed between a magnificent opening movement of great power and tension and a final, awesome Adagio that scales unprecedented heights of grandeur.
Horenstein’s performance of this is superbly realised. His tempi, faster than we are used to today, seem perfectly judged, although slower than Furtwängler in his ‘live’ Berlin account from 1944 (DG 445 418-2). Like that unsurpassed recording, Horenstein lends a special intensity to his music-making. The opening of the first movement, marked “Feierlich, misterioso”, brings radiant playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The hushed tremolo of strings mysteriously punctuates the silence so that when the great outburst from the full orchestra finally happens, the effect is all the more astonishing. From there, Horenstein layers the blocks of sound skillfully – the tonal colour that dominates this movement is built up in a glorious palate of sound, the nobility of the main theme made all the more striking by the conductor’s ability to highlight the sometimes stark motifs that breathe darkness into this music. The effect, put simply, is like looking at a newly restored painting.
Jascha Horenstein was born in Russia in 1899 to a Ukrainian father and an Austrian mother. Aged 12, he moved to Vienna where he studied the violin. It was whilst in Vienna that he discovered Indian philosophy, something that was to remain an influence on him for the rest of his life.In this respect, he had something in common with that other great interpreter of Bruckner’s symphonies, Sergiu Celibidache, whose interest in Zen had a profound impact on the shaping of both his life and music. But, whilst their understanding of Bruckner’s music often produced quite different results, Horenstein often the more exhilarating, Celibidache often the more profound, both had an unshakeable belief that art and life were empowered by the spirit.
Both conductors had the rare capacity to share this with their audiences so every concert became a search for inner meaning, often leading to profoundly moving experiences for the concert goer. It cannot be a coincidence that both conductors’ work on disc stems largely from ‘live’ performances, Celibidache going as far as refusing to record in the studio believing that each performance of music was a ‘live’ experience that could not be captured.
Horenstein quite correctly views the Scherzo as a contrast to the angst of the first movement. Whilst this is not always so in some interpretations, notably Bruno Walter’s recording on Sony (SMK 64483) with the Colombia Symphony Orchestra, the effect is all the more exciting.
Horenstein brings out the fullest contrast and the BBC Symphony Orchestra plays with real bite. The last movement Adagio, beginning with an almost atonal ascent of violins to the summit, and then a glorious brass chorale with lower strings digging in, remains one of the great Bruckner statements. It is superbly conducted here by Horenstein although somewhat on the fast side. In Furtwängler’s recording, the movement is actually markedly slower, and Celibidache’s is wonderfully sublime (EMI 5 56699-2). Nevertheless, the main melody is given true expansiveness, the BBC violins fleeting and sure, so when the agony of the final climax appears it is made in the grandest of terms.
The dissonance of this climax is for me the most awe-inspiring moment in all Bruckner. Horenstein builds up with electrifying intensity to this apotheosis and when the climax finally arrives it does so with a thunderous pulse. Celibidache, who seems almost to be preparing the whole symphony for this moment, is unsurpassed at this point of crisis. Horenstein, whilst not on the same exalted level as that, is impressive here as the symphony then makes its descent to a peaceful, but uneasy, resolution. The applause that greets the close of the final pages signifies a performance of some stature. It is.
The performance of the Eighth Symphony (in the Haas edition of 1939) was recorded three months earlier with the London Symphony Orchestra. It is, I think, a slightly more controversial reading. Again, Horenstein’s demands for excessive rehearsal time pay off in a performance that is beautifully played. The problem with his conception of the symphony is almost totally down to his sometimes wayward internal tempi, almost exclusively in the last movement.
Whilst the end result is a noble realisation of this Everest of symphonic masterpieces, there are times, notably at the beginning of the Finale, “Fierelich, nicht schnell”, where Horenstein takes the music at a licking pace. The Eighth is Bruckner at his grandest and most uplifting, a symphony where the contrasts between the end and the beginning are always evident.
Horenstein ends the first movement with just the correct amount of desolation, and throughout, the LSO brass offer playing of scorching intensity. The strings have a wonderfully deep sonority reflecting the cathedral of sound Bruckner had in his mind. This is most evident in the great Adagio, where Horenstein summons from the LSO playing of total purity. It is a fine example of Bruckner interpretation at its best. Horenstein’s conception of the coda that concludes the symphony is as fine as any on record. It is at this moment that the strands of the four movements are united in a closing statement of total genius, beginning evocatively and ending in a blaze of religious affirmation. The applause again suggests something rather special.
These are Bruckner interpretations of the old school and, as such, are an invaluable addition to the catalogue. The sound, deriving from 1970 in both recordings, is generally good, if not with the spacious acoustic Bruckner’s music ideally needs to convey its grandeur. It is, however, perfectly acceptable and I cannot recommend strongly enough these recordings, particularly that of the Ninth which really is something special.
535: 10.7.1999 Marc Bridle