BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor
Boulez's track record as The Iceman Cometh in Mahler's symphonies, recorded with a group of high-profile, gilt-edge global orchestras, had not prepared me for the majesty of this Bruckner, from the 1996 centennial commemoration in and around Linz. Only after the fact did I remember that he was chosen in 1976 to lead the centennial production of Wagner's Ring in the mother-church at Bayreuth. And what I heard of it, irrespective of Patrice Chareau's then-controversial production (set in Wagner's lifetime, with a neo-Shavian spin on soul-less capitalism), was very impressive. He cut out all the Teutonic bloat -- liposuction, if you will -- that had accumulated after Kaiser Richard's demise in 1883 (and has been put back in since).
Nothing's been cut in his Bruckner Eighth except Leopold Nowak's pedantic, postwar-2 edition that uses the composer's final version, where surgery amounted to amputation, especially in the finale. Boulez went back to Robert Haas, the International Bruckner Society's first editor, who managed to get tied (whether or not deserved) to the Nazi jackboot. Haas was a Bruckner pragmatist concerned with coherence and -- to the extent possible, given all the editions that clutter up the composer's canon --expressive eloquence. Listen to the Nowak if you're interested, then to Haas, and take Nowak back to your lending library (or to an exchange store).
Everything here works, is right -- even the acoustic of St. Florian's Abbey near Linz, where Bruckner requested that his remains be buried under the organ. The Vienna Philharmonic goes back to the composer's own time, even if its then-members hated his music to the extent of refusing to play it, or when they did play it, played it badly. Bruckner today is as much a cultural heritage as the Strauss repertoire of J, J and J, televised worldwide every New Year's Day (with egregious mispronunciations by tiresome Walter Cronkite -- "Yo-HAN" instead of "Yo-HAHN," und so weiter). For Boulez the orchestra produces a rich yet not fatty sound, impeccably disciplined - not only proprietary but I'll venture to say incomparable.
There is no dawdling but nothing is hurried. I have heard more heart-rending versions of the Adagio --for me Bruckner's greatest single movement -- but Boulez doesn't slight its ecstatic piety or billows of laic sound. All of which is to say that I can jettison several versions taking up valuable room in a limited space.
Boulez -- I'd never have guessed. Luckily, webmeister Benson sent it on with other review fodder, even though I'd said don't bother. Easily one of Y2K's outstanding releases.
R.D. (Dec. 2000)