BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor. FELDMAN: Coptic Light.
SWR Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg/Michael Gielen, cond.
HANSSLER CLASSIC LC 10622 (2 CDs) (F) TT: 60:39 & 47:31

Checking the index, I’ve reviewed three previous releases of this work in the last four years: Skrowaczewski on Arte Nova (BMG’s budget label, presumably killed when the company got into big trouble); the late Georg Tintner on Naxos, and most recently Pierre Boulez with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG. In the matter of editions, which can drive even Bruckner mavens berserk, Tintner used the “original” edition with an Irish orchestra not up to the job, albeit as edited by Leopold Nowak, in which the first movement ended loudly, et alia multa. Skrowaczewski opted for the composer’s “1887/1890 revision” (after conductor Hermann Levi declared himself bewildered by the music), which the Saarbrücken Radio Orchestra played with uncommon finesse in 1993, just three years before Boulez, who chose the 1887 version with materials rescued by Robert Haas from the butcheries of 1890, especially in the finale, but with the later quiet ending for Movement I. Haas, however, was tainted by Nazism, whether or not deservingly, and was replaced by Nowak who reedited the entire canon, preserving only Bruckner’s “last thoughts”—many of which were changes perpetrated by such “friends” and “pupils” of the ailing composer as Levi and the Schalk Brothers.

It is the so-called “Haas Edition” that Gielen likewise conducts in a1990 recording from the Hans Rosbaud Studio at Baden-Baden, sonorously played and cleanly recorded (verging on antisepsis), but taking 84:17 minutes overall, vs. Skrowaczewski’s 82:28, and Boulez’s 76:14. In his program note, Gielen says that “Bruckner allowed ‘gaps’...{because] his ideas were so revolutionary that they actually exhaust both composer and listener.” That accounts for some differences in timing between two versions of the “Haas edition,” but major differences come in the Scherzo, where Gielen’s “Allegro moderato” emphasizes moderato, making it the most otiose version I’ve heard since William Steinberg introduced me to the Eighth as a guest conductor in Chicago: 17:04 vs. Boulez’s 13:39. The sublime Adagio, however, is surprisingly only 1:57 slower than DG’s, and the finale a mere 1:19 slower.

Now, anyone who remembers my citations on this site of Gielen’s Mahler and previous Bruckner (Nos. 3 and 6) knows my regard for him as the most underrated German-born conductor since Rosbaud, his Baden-Baden ancestor. But too often Gielen’s Eighth comes perilously close to pedestrian, whereas Boulez’s comparative unfamiliarity with the music has produced the recording I’ll continue to keep, although DG’s live recording at St. Florian’s Monastery near Linz has a somewhat less brazen treble than Hänssler’s. But DG’s sonority and depth of sound, especially in the mid-to-low bass, more than compensate. Finally, one more kvetch: whereas Boulez fits handily on a single disc, Gielen’s tempi require a second CD, and as he has done in the past, adds a “modern” work. This time it’s the late Morton Feldman’s swan song, Coptic Light from 1985-86, which makes Philip Glass sound like Leonard Bernstein. Density of texture and minuscule departures from a relentless pattern of repetition lasting 23:39 made me want to toss the disc into the incinerator with yesterday’s coffee grounds.

I can’t remember hating a piece more, and decry Gielen’s judgment that “it already has all the makings of a masterpiece. It possesses the great authority of a composer who ensures that every note is in its place, that timing is right, u.s.w.” Bah-humbug. If you have Boulez’s Haas among the Bruckner Eighths since Karajan’s, you already have the most eloquent and invigorating.

R.D. (July 2003)