The opening to Bruckner’s 8th symphony is perhaps one of the composer’s most well-known moments, a growing ostinato in the strings giving way to a glorious brass melody, fringed with fanfare motifs in the trumpets. The theme moves around different keys before giving way to woodwind renditions of the figure.
The first recording considered here is Lorin Maazel’s, taken from a live performance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The string crescendo works passably, the opening assertive while maintaining its quiet dynamic. However, when the brass enter, the flaws of the recording become clear. The acciaccaturas in both the strings and the brass are imprecise, the slight disparity in timings giving what should be a glorious arrival into a fortissimo passage a somewhat subdued tone.
The entry of the timpani in the following bars is far more accurate, landing precisely on the downbeat, but in doing so, loses some grandeur. The almost robotic timpani roll robs the moment of its intended brilliance, the fanfare falling slightly flat following it despite a very clean tutti from the trumpets.
When the opening phrases are repeated in a different key, introduced this time by timpani, the grace notes seem to be afforded significantly more care, landing in time with each, the following fanfare feeling far more deserved. The new theme then introduced carries this forward, the bold movements of Bruckner reflected well.
The diminishment of the phrase into woodwind motifs through the trumpets, however, feels a little lacklustre. The continuation of sharp bow-strokes in the strings is perhaps the cause, the ebbing of the moment not carried across in the articulation of the strings, despite being portrayed very cleanly in the winds.
The second recording here is of Alan Gilbert with the New York Philharmonic, this time a formal recording rather than a live performance. The taste in interpretation for this version is noticeably different, the tempo significantly quicker, and a different approach taken to the brass tone. However, let us begin with the string entry. The NYPO carries the opening of the movement off with far more confidence than the first recording, quicker tempi aiding the roaring crescendo. The choice of such speed, however, creates a slight gap between the upper and lower strings, attack in the double basses noticeably pushing them behind the violins.
No such issue presents itself with the low brass chords however, the rhythmic unison portrayed beautifully, in a manner that is far more convincing than Maazel with the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Where this recording falls however, is in the much more angular brass tone, the articulation far crisper, but also losing the rounded warm sound that is so cherished by modern orchestras.
The neatness of the brass in their first entry then somewhat decays as the orchestra enters the trumpet fanfare, traces of split notes making their way into the third bar of their entry. Here, the faster tempo seems a perhaps unwise choice.
As the melody from the opening returns, one detects a change however in the playing. Some of the longer chords are given the warmth that they lack in the opening, at the unfortunate expense of ensemble at the ends of phrases, different parts coming off at slightly different times. As the music falls into the quieter refrain of the woodwind, the listener distinctly recognises where Maazel made his mistake: Gilbert allows the strings to relax a little, gentler bow-strokes resolving the problem of the first recording, those abrasive chords ruining the quietening atmosphere.
The third recording under consideration here is Sir Georg Solti’s with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The playing heard here perhaps reflects the age of the recording, or rather aged choice in rehearsal and conducting on the hands of Sir Georg Solti, the audience immediately able to detect where specifically attention has been given.
The string entries are decidedly sloppy, the blend to the string sound present in the Gilbert and Maazel nowhere to be seen, the brass unison at their entry flat and while rhythmically accurate, somehow lacking in enthusiasm and energy. The same cannot be said for the remainder of the opening of the movement however. The Solti picks up energy and vivacity with astonishing pace, but like the previous recordings, sacrifices technical accuracy, the brass entries quite rough at times.
However, the string descent into the woodwind refrain is afforded far more care. The articulation used is much closer to that in Maazel’s recording, yet manages to convey the calming of the storm much more deftly, most likely due to the changing tone in the brass doing the job of resolution that the strings carry in the NYPO recording.
The final recording under discussion is, like the first, a live performance rather than a studio recording. Here, Pierre Boulez conducts the Vienna Philharmonic. [Jump to 54:58].
The initial entry of the strings suffers from technical inaccuracy, but is quickly brought back into line, falling into perfect formation after less than a bar. The crescendo is a little more staid than in the American recordings, but loses none of its potency, embodying stateliness rather than brash drama in its growth. The entry of the brass then complements it nicely, not given the sharp articulation of the Gilbert, but with more rounded tone and perception of strength. The timpani roll then achieves what Maazel failed to do, the roll here adding a sense of pace and energy that is forgone by all the other recordings, in which the timpani either sounds robotic, or flies under the listener’s radar, hidden in the grandeur of orchestration that Bruckner never fails to provide.
The hallmarks of Boulez’s direction are clear here, cleanliness and technical accuracy on display to their fullest extent accompanied with astonishing musicality. The brass melody is given its true glory, technically perfect, the trumpet fanfare in a similar fashion, working to enhance the moment to its full. The descent into the woodwind section is where this performance falls a little short however, the maintained string articulation slightly prickling the gentle woodwinds, yet not to the extent to which Maazel’s does.
All the recordings shown in this article have their own quirks, the choices made by the conductors over their exit from the brass melodies into the woodwind refrain marking each of them apart. The styles of the conductors, in Boulez’s stunning accuracy but slightly more reticent approach to energy, all the way to Gilbert’s excitement and vivacity-filled proclamations, are reflected into their performances, reminding the listener that the writing of the music, however many centuries ago, is not the end of the music process.