In early September 1887, Anton Bruckner completed the first version of his Symphony No.8. "Hallelujah! The Eighth is ready at last and my 'father in art' [künstlerischer Vater] should be the first to receive the news" he wrote on September 4 to Hermann Levi, adding "may it find mercy."
Levi, conductor of the first performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth, was at the height of his fame and powers and had, two years earlier, scored a resounding triumph with a performance of Bruckner's Seventh in Munich, where Levi was Hofkapellmeister.
But if Bruckner was hoping for similar enthusiasm from his "father in art," he was to be disappointed. The Eighth was a massive symphony, almost certainly the longest to have been composed at that time, and Levi was simply baffled by it. He thus found himself unable to perform the new work, but he also lacked the courage to tell the composer this directly and so sought the mediation of Josef Schalk, one of Bruckner's pupils.
When Schalk conveyed the message to Bruckner, it "shook his self confidence to the roots and shattered his belief in himself as a composer," as Hans-Hubert Schönzeler wrote in his 1970 biography. Some authorities have even gone so far as to suggest that Bruckner, the devout Catholic, contemplated suicide.
This shock precipitated Bruckner into the second of his great periods of revision, which was to last until 1891. During this time he revised, inter alia, the First, Third and Fourth Symphonies, and the Eighth, which was first performed, to great success, in 1892.
During the 1920s it began to be noised around that the first published editions of Bruckner's symphonies did not necessarily represent their composer's real intentions, but were instead the product of overenthusiastic pupils (mainly the brothers Schalk -- Franz and Josef -- and Ferdinand Löwe), who had made major cuts, changed orchestrations and harmonies in order to make the music more palatable to contemporary audiences. Throughout the next two decades, the critical Gesamtausgabe of Bruckner's works began to be published by the Austrian National Library -- to whom Bruckner had willed his autograph scores -- under the editorship of Robert Haas.
In many cases, notably the Fifth and Ninth symphonies, the new critical edition was a revelation. The Fifth had only been heard in a massively truncated and reorchestrated version; the Ninth caused a sensation in 1932, when Siegmund von Haussegger and the Munich Philharmonic gave a concert in which they played first the published Löwe version and then the critical edition (edited by Alfred Orel).
In the case of the Eighth, however, the waters proved to be considerably murkier. The Eight was revised by Bruckner in 1890 and first published in 1892. This 1892 edition was the basis for virtually all performances until Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1938 premiere of what is now known as the Haas Edition.
Bruckner, the great "apostle" of Wagner, coming as he did from a long line of Austrian peasant stock, was 100% "Aryan" and his music was rapidly hijacked during the 1930s by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. (The announcement of Hitler's death on Reich Radio was followed by the Furtwängler recording of the Adagio from the Seventh Symphony). The work of Haas was tainted by this association; after the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, he was relieved of his position and replaced by Leopold Nowak. Much was made, particularly in the early days of Nowak's tenure, of the Nazi associations during Haas's years as editor. In 1955 Nowak published his critical edition of the Eighth, which was almost identical with the first published edition of 1892 -- perhaps Bruckner's collaborators had less impact on this score than on some others.
The position is made more complex by Haas's approach to his editorial task; he considered, and this is not hard to argue, that given Bruckner's low self-confidence after Levi's rejection of the Eighth, he was more malleable than in previous years and thus more prone to accepting suggestions for cuts and alterations that he might otherwise have rejected. However, Haas went further and claimed that he could tell which changes Bruckner would have made, if left to his own devices, and which were forced on him against his better judgment.
Haas took the 1890 edition and restored those passages from the 1887 which he felt Bruckner would not (or should not) have excised. Much mud has been flung in his direction over this; it has even been suggested that some of the material Haas "restored" was not even composed by Bruckner but by Haas himself. (Recent discussion in the rec.music.classical.recordings newsgroup seems to have identified a single flute passage in the finale as the only possible target of this charge and this, considering Bruckner's habit of pasting changes onto the page on new pieces of paper, which could easily come adrift, must remain unestablished).
In 1973 Leopold Nowak published his critical edition of the original, 1887 score (contained on this recording), so we are now faced with four versions:
The changes between Bruckner's original version and the revision of 1890 are extensive; the orchestration was made darker-hued by the addition of four Wagner tubas; the original trio was replaced by a newly composed one (although they share some thematic material); the other movements were cut considerably; the first movement in 1887 ended with thirty-some bars of triple-forte as opposed to the pp ending of 1890 (the only quiet ending to any of Bruckner's huge outer movements); the climax of the adagio is in C major in 1887, in E flat in 1890.
The different lengths of the various version can be seen from the table below. Note that the 1887 trio is entirely different, also that the first published version (1892) and the 1890 version are almost identical.
The versions of Bruckner's Eighth
This new recording is only the third of the original 1887 version -- the first, under Eliahu Inbal, is on Teldec -- and only the second available. (The other recording was also by Georg Tintner, an LP set with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, never reissued on CD; both recordings were issued in 1983, so I'm not positive which was the first).
Tintner, in his lucid and enlightening liner note (would that other conductors did likewise), points out that the Haas edition, for all its lack of strict musicological integrity, presents us with the "best of both worlds." He goes on, however, to note that the 1887 version "written without interference from anyone...shows an almost primitive spontaneity."
While I cannot imagine this version supplanting either Haas or Nowak (1890) in the affections of Brucknerphiles, there is much to be admired in it -- and it is hardly the product of an inexperienced mind incapable of "getting it right the first time"; the Seventh, after all, was, and still is, highly successful in its first and only version.
With this new recording Georg Tintner confirms his position as one of the greatest of living Bruckner conductors. He makes no apologies for the shortcomings (and there are a few) of the material by comparison with its revision, but plays it all to the hilt.
Those familiar with either established version will find much to surprise and even delight them in the many subtle and no-so-subtle differences, but such is Tintner's command of the idiom and control of the overall form and structure that even one's momentary astonishment is rapidly swept away by the majesty of his overall conception of the work.
Like the piece itself, Tintner's performance grows in stature as it proceeds. The massive closing bars of the 1887 first movement, for instance, can easily sound like bombast, pure and simple, when set beside the later, more familiar pp ending; Tintner gives them a simple majesty, which quite overcomes one's resistance.
The adagio is, for Tintner, "with that of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the greatest symphonic slow movement ever written." With a sure hand, he shapes its half-hour extent magnificently, with each climax carefully judged and the dynamics beautifully molded so that the whole forms an enormous arch during which the attention never falters for a moment. At the culminating climax there are six "rather grotesque" cymbal strokes; "what can the poor conductor do with these six strokes?" writes Tintner somewhat plaintively. "He has to do them, because they are in Bruckner's original manuscript." What he can do, manifestly, is to transform them from the garish possibility they suggest into something totally convincing, as Tintner does here. How he does it is another matter entirely.
The massive finale again requires a sure hand or it can easily seem merely episodic. Tintner yields to none in his architectural feel for the movement (and the work as a whole), yet there is no lack of detail nor excitement. The great final coda, with its combination of the main themes of all four movements, brings the symphony to its requisite magnificent conclusion.
The only other available competition -- Inbal's account with the Frankfurt Radio SO on Teldec -- is worthy but dull by comparison. Inbal almost seem to be apologizing for the music. Yet, had Bruckner died in 1888 before he had had time to revise the Eighth, we should surely today be acclaiming this version as the master's last, greatest work.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland may not be the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic, but they are a first-rate band and they play their hearts out for Tintner (and the brass are far securer than the Royal Scottish Orchestra in Tintner's Fifth, for example).
And finally Naxos seems to have cracked the art of orchestral recording; this is a fine example, warm and lifelike, it opens up superbly at the climaxes.
If I have overlooked the coupling -- Bruckner's Symphony No.0, now firmly established as having been composed after No.1, probably discarded because the composer thought it too similar to No.3 in the same key of D minor -- it is not for any lack of quality or commitment, simply that the new Eighth is a great performance of such a comparative rarity. No.0 has been recorded more times than the 1887 Eighth, but this new version can easily hold its own against all of the competition.
This set is an essential purchase for any lover of Bruckner's music; at the price, even newcomers will find it an attractive introduction to a composer whose time, over a century after his death, may finally have come.
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