Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 8 in C minor
PERFORMER: Vienna PO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 459 678-2
Boulez has been a Bruckner admirer since the early Sixties. But as to what a Boulez Bruckner performance might sound like, most of us have had to wait till now to find out. This live recording was made four years ago in St Florian – the Augustinian monastery where Bruckner was educated and which became his spiritual home. The music obviously loves the acoustic – spacious but not muddy (it is surprising how much detail emerges). But the biggest surprise for me was the performance. Boulez still has a reputation for chilliness, but this is intensely expressive, and very exciting. Bruckner exciting? That’s how some of his contemporaries found him, and Bruckner once described himself as a ‘fiery catholic’, in contrast to the ‘cold, protestant’ Brahms. It’s partly the sharply articulate rhythms – you’ve only to look at Bruckner’s scores to see how important rhythmic clarity was to him (though you’d never guess it from some recordings); but it’s also thanks to Boulez’s remarkable sense of pace. After starting the first movement on the slowish side, he soon settles into a more mobile pulse. Tempo isn’t rigid, but the fluidity – a slight acceleration here, a pulling back there – makes sense; and the performance as a whole is a glowing vindication of the longer Haas version of this score (musicologically questionable, but musically lucid, as Boulez acknowledges). Best of all was the finale: lively, sometimes surging forward impetuously, yet never compromising the music’s grandeur. No, it hasn’t the nobility or the sense of mysterious underlying calm Günter Wand revealed in his live NDR Symphony Orchestra recording. But a Bruckner Eight which can be so gripping from start to finish deserves the full star-rating. Stephen Johnson