Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor

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WORKS: Symphony No. 8 in C minor
PERFORMER: Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
Barbirolli’s Bruckner has a quality of its own. He doesn’t belong to the German architectural tradition, best exemplified by Klemperer and Wand, nor does he have much in common with the volatile, febrile Furtwängler. You could describe this Eighth as Bruckner seen through the eyes of a great Elgarian – a noble, warm, supple Bruckner, generous melodic phrasing very much to the fore (all well served by the recording). But it never sounds self-indulgent. There’s purpose here too, a sense of impassioned pilgrimage. Barbirolli is more successful than most in the difficult finale – not at first perhaps, but in the development and recapitulation sections there’s a sense of dramatic urgency which grips the attention. There’s an interesting paradox here: Barbirolli’s Eighth never feels hurried, and yet in terms of timing it’s one of the shortest versions currently available on record – even though Barbirolli uses the longer Haas version. It’s a salutary reminder that the psychological ‘speed’ of a tempo can’t be measured in terms of clocks or metronomes. For anyone who loves Elgar, feels they would like to love Bruckner too, but hasn’t yet made the leap of faith, this is probably the ideal recommendation. More Germanically inclined Brucknerians ought to get a lot out of it too, despite the sometimes precarious string ensemble, and the occasional technical blemish from other departments. It doesn’t quite supplant the Wand/NDR version – apart from his sense of living structure, Wand has a deeper understanding of the Eighth’s darker spiritual side. But this is an Eighth to which I’d happily return, with the expectation of learning something new each time. Stephen Johnson