Day 120: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (Karajan)

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 Austrian Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), one of the most highly respected conductors – and interpreters of Anton Bruckner’s music – who ever lived.

(By the way, the CD sleeve above, left, reads “4” and the CD sleeve below, right, reads “5” because Symphony No. 8 in C Minor is found on Discs 4 and 5 of the Karajan box set.)

I first encountered the Maestro on Day 8 of my 144-day journey, interpreting Bruckner’s First Symphony.

Then again on Day 24, Symphony No. 2.

Then again on Day 40, Symphony No. 3.

Then again on the aforementioned Day 56, Symphony No. 4.

Then again on Day 72, Symphony No. 5.

Then again on Day 88, Symphony No. 6.

Then again, most recently, on Day 104, Symphony No. 7.

brucknerkarajanboxIt’s no secret that I love Bruckner’s Eighth. (After all, I flew to New York for one night just to hear Daniel Barnboim conduct it at Carnegie Hall. So, I either love the symphony, or I’m just crazy.)

As a result, I’ve been looking forward to hearing Karajan’s interpretation of Bruckner’s Eighth, not only because it’s Karajan, but also because the orchestra is the Berliner Philharmoniker and the box set is one released by Deutsche Grammophon, one of the most prestigious labels of Classical music in the world. DG does nothing sloppily.

But, enough of my waxing subjective. Let’s get all the facts first. Then I’ll provide my opinion about what I’m hearing.

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (WAB 108), composed 1884-1890
Herbert von Karajan conducts
Karajan used (according to the liner notes) the “Version: 1887-90 edited by Robert Haas”
Berliner Philharmoniker plays
The symphony clocks in at 82:20 – Yikes! (Okay, that’s a slight opinion.)
This was recorded in Berlin, Germany, in 1975
Karajan was 67 when he conducted it
Bruckner was 66 when he finished composing it
This recording was released on the Deutsche Grammophon label

Bruckner wrote his symphonies in four parts. The time breakdown of this one (Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, “Version: 1887-90 edited by Robert Haas”), from this particular conductor (Karajan) and this particular orchestra (Berliner Philharmoniker) is as follows:

I. Allegro moderato…………………………………………………………………………….16:45
II. Scherzo. Allegro moderato…………………………………………………………….15:08
II. Adagio. Feierlich langsam; aber nicht schleppend……………………….26:07
IV. Finale. Feierlich, nicht schnell……………………………………………………….24:06

Total running time: 82:20

For more about the Haas edition of Bruckner’s Eighth, see its entry on Wikipedia.

For more about the 1890 version, see its entry on Wikipedia.

For more about the 1887 version, see its entry on Wikipedia.

From the liner notes by Richard Osborne,

This is a very Everest among symphonies that even the mature Bruckner, at the height of his powers, did not get right the first attempt.

In scale, dramatic thrust, and the capacity to uncover inner darkness, contemplate it, and rise beyond it, the Eighth is undoubtedly Bruckner’s most powerful and all-encompassing symphonic work, one of the supreme achievements of post-Renaissance European art and a work that found in Karajan one of its supreme interpreters.

Now, the subjective aspects.

My Rating:
Recording quality: 4
Overall musicianship: 4
CD liner notes: 5 (lengthy and informative, but very heavy on the Karajan worship)
How does this make me feel: 2

I’m going to have to disagree with Richard Osborne on this one.

Frankly, I’m shocked by how little I enjoyed this performance.

It is a feeble “Meh” rather than a resounding “Huzzah!”

To be absolutely blunt, this bored me to tears – all 82:20 x 2 of it.

I sat and listened to this twice through. Both times, I waited to be transported, to be carried away, to get lost in the grandeur.

It never happened.

I can’t point to why this didn’t resonate with me. But I think it has to do with a lack of energy, an overemphasis on the horns, and a monochrome tonality that seemed to bury the highs and ignore the lows.

The performance was, to me, like listening to music in a depressed state.

Obviously, there are those who will strongly disagree with me (Richard Osborne, for one).

And they’re right, too.

Music is in the ear of the beholder.

And these ears, on this beholder, found Karajan’s performance wanting.

I was so lulled by Karjan’s interpretation of Bruckner’s Eighth that I immediately, after the last note petered out in the Finale (for the second time!), popped in Iron Maiden‘s classic “2 Minutes to Midnight.”

“2 Minutes” is both a palate cleanser and a full-on de-fib paddle shock to the chest.

Something had to wake me up.

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