Review by: David Hurwitz
Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 8
With the exception of the Fourth Symphony, Gunter Wand’s Berlin Bruckner remakes have not surpassed their NDR predecessors. The reason isn’t hard to fathom: NDR is the better of the two orchestras in this music at present, and the evidence is right there on the discs themselves. During his tenure as music director, Claudio Abbado has replaced approximately two-thirds of the Philharmonic’s personnel, and however fine these newcomers may be individually, as an ensemble the Berlin Philharmonic is a young group that has not yet found its corporate voice. Contrast this to Wand’s years of work at NDR almost exclusively in the Brahms/Bruckner/Beethoven core German repertoire, and it should come as no surprise that his earlier efforts supercede a one-off guest gig in Berlin, however much rehearsal time he might have had. Still, this being Wand and Bruckner, the results are bound to be at least good, so when reading the following comments please insert the adverb “comparatively” before every descriptive adjective.
This time around, Wand directs a curiously static account of the first movement. Its two great climaxes, at the recapitulation and just before the coda, sound insufficiently biting, particularly in the brass. But the real problem lies in Wand’s mannered treatment of the second subject’s 2+3 rhythm, where the strings’ overly accented handling of the triplet prevents these repeated rhythmic sequences from gathering sufficient forward impetus or overarching shape. He thus deprives the music of that singular combination of inexorability and monumentality that usually characterize his performances. The scherzo goes very well save for muddy textures at the loud ends of sections (partly a function of the recording) and the disappointingly timid horns and trumpets who make an exaggerated (and unmarked) drop in volume so as to crescendo up to the full stop. Wand does this same thing in his earlier versions, but clearer sonics make the result sound less fussy. No complaints, though, about the lovely trio.
The Berlin strings dominate the slow movement, and they do play gorgeously, even if the engineers balance them too far forward. Still, Wand shapes the music with his customary mastery: the cadence theme for strings and harps seldom has evoked such seraphic purity, and at the climax–rich and full but without strain–he holds nothing back. At slightly more than 26 minutes, the finale is Wand’s lengthiest, but it doesn’t start that way (blatting trombones notwithstanding). As in the first movement, he simply relaxes too much in the slower sections (note the really unlovely tone of the brass choral at the heart of the second subject, aggravated by the droopy tempo), and the result is less coherent, more sectionalized than in his best performances. The coda, too, is quite disappointing: very slow but only intermittently sustained, the trombones overwhelming backward horns and weak trumpets. Poor balances make the various polyphonic strands that comprise the closing pages indistinct, and there’s little sense of culmination. RCA’s up-close sonics, aside from the exaggerated forward placement of the strings, rarely permit a true piano and thus limit the dynamic range at the climaxes.
If you want to hear Berlin play a great Bruckner Eighth, then Maazel’s stunning (and very surprising) EMI recording fits the piece on one disc at budget price. Wand’s best recording remains his live effort from Lübeck Cathedral (1987), though his Hamburg remake from six years later is no slouch either. Both feature the NDR (North German Radio) Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, both have also been deleted domestically (and there’s no guarantee that this one will even be issued). As noted above, Wand couldn’t conduct bad Bruckner to save his life, but this doesn’t mean that everything he does must necessarily be great. This performance certainly isn’t.
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Recording Details:Reference Recording: Böhm (Palexa), Wand/NDR (RCA), Maazel (EMI), Giulini (DG), Jochum (DG); Suitner (Berlin Classics)
ANTON BRUCKNER - Symphony No. 8