Day 113: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (Barenboim)

This morning, I begin a new 16-day cycle of Anton Bruckner symphonies and their conductors.

Also, I begin the countdown to seeing today’s conductor (Daniel Barenboim) work his magic at Carnegie Hall, interpreting today’s symphony (Bruckner’s Eighth) before my very eyes.

I’m stoked.

But enough of my yakkin’.

Let’s boogie.

This morning’s conductor of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (WAB 108) (nicknamed “The Apocalyptic,” although I don’t know why) is Argentine-born pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (1942-).

brucknerbarenboimcd8The orchestra is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I first heard Maestro Barenboim on Day 1, Symphony No. 1.

Then again on Day 17, Symphony No. 2.

Then again on Day 33, Symphony No. 3.

Then again on Day 49, Symphony No. 4.

Then again on Day 65, Symphony No. 5.

Then again on Day 81, Symphony No. 6.

Then, most recently, on Day 97, Symphony No. 7.

Because this is the start of a new symphony, I like to gather as much background information as possible so that I know what I’m hearing.

So, I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit: From its entry on Wikipedia:

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor is the last symphony the composer completed. It exists in two major versions of 1887 and 1890. It was premiered under conductor Hans Richter in 1892 in Vienna. It is dedicated to the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.

This symphony is sometimes nicknamed The Apocalyptic, but this was not a name Bruckner gave to the work himself.

Bruckner began work on the Eighth Symphony in July 1884. Working mainly during the summer vacations from his duties at the University of Vienna and the Vienna Conservatory, the composer had all four movements completed in draft form by August 1885. The orchestration of the work took Bruckner until April 1887 to complete: during this stage of composition the order of the inner movements was reversed, leaving the scherzo second and the Adagio as the third movement.

In September 1887 Bruckner had the score copied and sent to conductor Hermann Levi. Levi was one of Bruckner’s closest collaborators, having given a performance of the Seventh Symphony in Munich that was “the greatest triumph Bruckner had yet experienced”. He had also arranged for Bruckner’s career to be supported in other ways, including financial assistance from the nobility, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna. However the conductor wrote back to Bruckner that:

I find it impossible to perform the Eighth in its current form. I just can’t make it my own! As much as the themes are magnificent and direct, their working-out seems to me dubious; indeed, I consider the orchestration quite impossible… Don’t lose your courage, take another look at your work, talk it over with your friends, with Schalk, maybe a reworking can achieve something.

By January 1888 Bruckner had come to agree with Levi that the symphony would benefit from further work. He began work on the revision in March 1889 and completed the new version of the symphony in March 1890. Once the revision was completed, the composer wrote to Emperor Franz Josef I for permission to dedicate the symphony to him. The emperor accepted Bruckner’s request and also offered to help pay for the work’s publication. Bruckner had some trouble finding a publisher for the work, but in late 1890 the Haslinger-Schlesinger-Lienau company agreed to undertake publication. Bruckner’s associates Josef Schalk and Max von Oberleithner assisted with the publication process: Schalk prepared the musical text to be sent to the printer while Oberleithner corrected the proofs and also provided financial support. The symphony was eventually published in March 1892. It was the only one of Bruckner’s symphonies to be published before its first performance.

So, according to Wikipedia, Bruckner’s Eighth was composed between 1884 and 1890 – six years!

To give that span of time more clarity, Bruckner was 60 years old when he started his Eighth, and 66 when he completed it.

According to the wonderful little book Bruckner Symphonies by Philip Barford,

In the last two symphonies there is a heightened subjectivity touching springs of fervour and melancholy. Spiritual optimism and consolation are sometimes overshadowed by the pressure of opposing forces…the religious practices which moulded Bruckner’s inner life, whilst offering opportunities for withdrawal and retreat, did not sop problems of insecurity and personal relationship from pressing ever more flexibly upon him.

In the Eighth Symphony, Bruckner struggled with and sublimated his unfulfilled longings, anxieties and fears in music which seems to bind all the strands of his life experience into a musical synthesis, wonderful symbolised in the unification of themes from all the movies of the work at the end. (pages 55, 56)

From the equally enjoyable book The Essence of Bruckner by Robert Simpson,

Within Bruckner’s ethos (which is much wider in scope than is often supposed) one cannot find two works more contrasted than the Seventh and Eighth symphonies. No. 7 is poised and fundamentally relaxed, for all its tonal intricacy and originality; like the Second and Fourth it is an expression of elevated content in the make of music. The sweeping dramatic forces of the Eighth is almost new to Bruckner. No whole work anticipates its character, not even the Third, the most dramatically inclined of the earlier symphonies. The Fifth has an immense inner tension resembling that of Gothic architecture, and is dramatic as a totality rather than as a process; there is nothing in it that quite suggests the dark sense of crisis that fills the first movement of No. 8. the Eighth is the first full upshot of matters hitherto hidden in undercurrents and only intermittently allowed to erupt. (Page 191)

As I always to, I’ll offer my opinions of the performance at the end of this entry. First, the objective aspects of this recording.

barenboimboxBruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (WAB 108), composed between 1884 and 1890
Daniel Barenboim conducts
Barenboim used the 1890 version (but edited by whom? Nowak? Haas?)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays
The symphony clocks in at 79:20
This was recorded at Chicago, Orchestra Hall in December of 1980
Barenboim was 38 when he conducted it
Bruckner was 66 when he finished composing it
This recording was released on the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) label

Bruckner wrote his symphonies in four parts. The time breakdown of this one (Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, “Version: 1890”), from this particular conductor (Barenboim) and this particular orchestra (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) is as follows:

I. Allegro moderato……………………………………………………………………………..15:21
II. Scherzo. Allegro moderato – Trio. Langsam………………………………….15:09
III. Adagio. Feierlich langsam; doch nicht schleppend…………………………………………………………………………………………22:55
IV. Finale. Feierlich, nicht schnell………………………………………………………..12:37

Total running time: 79:20

Regarding the version (“Version: 1890”) listed in the liner notes, its entry on Wikipedia tells us this:

Some scholars such as Deryck Cooke and Robert Haas have suggested that the 1890 revision was the product of Bruckner’s insecurity and pressure from his colleagues such as Josef Schalk: Cooke even referred to it as the “Bruckner-Schalk revision”. Against this Leopold Nowak has pointed out that there is no evidence of any handwriting other than Bruckner’s own in the 1890 manuscript. According to the testimony of Bruckner’s friends and associates the composer was extremely resistant to outside interference.

The scoring of the 1890 version is fuller and more grandiloquent than the 1887 version, with subtler textures and harmonies in the woodwind in particular, allowed for by the increased size of this section of the orchestra. It was published in 1955 in an edition edited by Leopold Nowak.

I wonder if that means Barenboim used the Nowak edition?

I won’t know because this Barenboim box set doesn’t tell me.

Okay. I’ve heard from the musicologists and Brucknerians. What say I?

My Rating:
Recording quality: 4
Overall musicianship: 4
CD liner notes: 3 (short essay in three languages)
How does this make me feel: 4

Usually, it’s the lively and quirky Scherzo that excites me. This time, it was the Finale. Then the Scherzo. Probably in that order. Or neck and neck.

Together, both of those movements are get my motor running.

Overall, Bruckner’s Eighth has a “big-ness” to it. For whatever reason, it’s one of my favorites, if not my most favorite.

This particular performance of Bruckner’s Eighth isn’t my favorite, however.

It seems to lack nuance. And energy. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. But it seems by the book, or rote, like everyone turned in a fine performance because they’re consummate pros, not because they tried very hard this time.

Also, this recording seems more compressed than usual. Like, there’s not enough depth or space between the instruments. I can hear them all, yes. But I hear mostly horns.

I don’t even know how to describe how I prefer my recordings to sound. With air between the instruments is about the best I can do to capture it. I don’t like hearing a wall of sound. I like vibrancy. And robustness. But there’s a subtlety to those qualities, a balance, that gives me a richer, fuller experience.

Maybe I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about.

Maybe this is a stellar performance and my ears are defective.

It’s all subjective, folks.

Your mileage may vary.

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