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Review: Bruckner Symphony 8, Thielemann / Vienna Philharmonic

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Review – Bruckner Symphony 8, Christian Thielemann / Vienna Philharmonic / Sony Classical

The High Arts Review Rating ★★★(★)☆

The booklet informs us that this is a captured live performance from Vienna, recorded in October 2019 (a careful listener will detect some minor coughing here and there, which is hardly noticeable) that benefits from being closely recorded. It might seem odd to start by referring to the engineering but, in this case, it plays an important role since the upfront sound partly counter-balances the conductor’s gentle approach. True, Thielemann’s 8th is a natural and substantial reading, but if you prefer your Bruckner featuring earth-shattering climaxes and piercing horns, you will be disappointed.

Of course, the conductor has already recorded the work before, with the Staatskapelle Dresden for the Profil label. The differences are minor. The playing in both recordings is very refined: I’d say that the Dresden players provide more warmth and flexibility, while the Vienna Philharmonic sounds more polished and somber. And even though the recorded sound is not ideal in either, this new release has clearer stereo separation and more detail. The major interpretative difference is Thielemann’s approach in the Scherzo: in the earlier recording, the conductor had the habit of inserting diminuendos after the main theme, whereas here we get a more standard reading that will probably satisfy more listeners.

I began this review by stating that Thielemann’s handling of the score is on the soft side. This is true in the First movement, which may lack the fire of other performances, but the calculated string playing with all the underlying sense of mystery is there. I also liked how he phrases the very ending of the same movement in a controlled, yet natural way. 

Clocking in at 26:25, the actual timing of the Adagio seems fine on paper. Thielemann unfolds the themes naturally, but the earlier performance felt less rushed and more emotionally engaging. And while the different string layers are beautifully captured by the engineers, one could wish for more focused orchestral tutti, as in 18:35. The climax is well calculated, but the discerning critic in me will complain about the (here) inaudible harp that follows. However, this is really nit-picking that would annoy only the most selective Bruckner connoisseur — when played by the Vienna Philharmonic, the Adagio can never go wrong, and here it receives a satisfying reading.

The Finale starts off impressively, the rhythmic tension present — weak timpani notwithstanding. I like how Thielemann once more emphasises the softer side of this spectacular movement — arguably among Bruckner’s finest creations—, where even the most delicate passages are heard. Being the Vienna Philharmonic, their sound is imposing but don’t expect the beautiful string legato the same orchestra provided for Karajan or Boulez (the latter is, paradoxically, one of the most emotionally engaging accounts). Also, a bit more bite would have been welcome as in the recapitulation where, incidentally, the winds disappear under the huge orchestral forces. 

The competition is fierce in this repertoire, but Thielemann’s softer approach seems to work. Yes, one has to forget Karajan’s devastating climaxes, Bohm’s fury, or Wand’s nearly-religious experience (especially his BPO recording). This is a tamer reading in all respects, but still Thielemann manages to penetrate into the core and reveal the essence of the music. Not a mighty 8th then but a welcome addition nonetheless.

Reference recordings: Wand/BPO, Karajan/BPO, Karajan/VPO, Bohm/VPO, Boulez/VPO, Jansons/BRSO

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