Bruckner: Symphony No. 8

Last night I once again found myself settling into a seat at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, this time under the direction of Mihhail Gerts. There was only one item on the menu – the Symphony No. 8 by Anton Bruckner – but what a feast it turned out to be!

Bruckner had a habit of making multiple revisions to his scores, and the Eighth Symphony is no exception to this. There are two major versions (usually referred to as the 1887 and 1890 versions) but also numerous edited variations of these two. For the record last night we heard the edition made by Robert Haas, based mainly on the 1890 version, but replacing some pieces which had been edited out of the 1887, perhaps most notably a quiet passage in the Third (Adagio) Movement.

This is a colossal work, lasting about 90 minutes in performance and requiring a huge orchestra so the stage was very crowded when the concert got under way.

As well as larger than usual string sections, the brass section comprises no less than eight horns, three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba as well as a quartet of Wagnertuben which you don’t often see in a symphony orchestra. These instruments have a sound somewhere between that of the horns and the trombones and they add an immense solidity to the section that produces a wall of sound that has an extraordinary effect when heard live, especially during the fortissimo passages (of which there are several in this work).

Woodwinds include a bass clarinet and a contrabassoon alongside the more usual clarinets and flutes, and there are three harps and percussion. A special mention must be made of the timpanist (Grahame King) who was given a huge amount to do, and did it all exceptionally well.

The work is structured in four movements, each of which involves a shift from minor to major (the piece opens in C minor) but each covers a very varied musical landscape. The overall atmosphere of the work varies too. At times it is tranquil (or perhaps merely resigned) but it often evokes a sense of conflict and sometimes even terror. It does, however, end in a glorious crescendo that gives a sense of triumph. Along the way there is some truly memorable passages: a gorgeous dialogue between flutes and clarinets in the 2nd Movement (Scherzo) comes to mind, and the Adagio as a whole is just magnificent.

I have never heard this work performed live, and have to admit I got completely lost in the performance. Despite the length of the concert, I never looked at my watch once during the whole thing. Congratulations to Mihhail Gerts and the entire orchestra for taking us on such an epic journey. I enjoyed every second of it, and so I think did the rest of the audience, because the end was greeted with a standing ovation.

But you don’t need to rely on my opinion. You can’t beat live music, but the entire concert is here for you to enjoy as live on the Lyric FM stream. Enjoy!

10 Responses to “Bruckner: Symphony No. 8”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Three harps? I seem to remember seeing two harps in performances, although my memory could be defective.

    Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is magnificent.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Strange – there is definitely no bass clarinet or contrabassoon in the score. Bruckner never wrote for these instruments. Sometimes conductors take the liberty of using them where there is a piece of poor scoring (e.g. a bass clarinet instead of the pppppp bassoon that Tchaikovsky writes in the 6th symphony). But there’s no justification for any such alterations here.

    • telescoper Says:

      If I remember correctly the woodwinds are all triple. According to the Wikipedia article one of the bassoons doubles as a contrabassoon in the finale, at least in the 1887 version of the score. Also one of the flutes doubles as a piccolo in the finale.
      I suspect it was a similar story with the bass clarinet.

  3. John Peacock Says:

    As a paid-up Bruckner fan, I’m ashamed to say I was wrong about the contra-bassoon, which is in the score for both 1887 and 1890. I had no memory of one from when I played the piece, but the score is clear. However, I would have noticed a bass clarinet, and there’s nothing in the score – just 3 normal instruments. So if you really saw one, then they were doing some unauthorised tinkering, which generally I would disapprove of.

    But having said that, one of the most stunning versions of this symphony is the one by Barbirolli: and he does tinker – compare his closing bars with the version you heard. It’s not quite what Bruckner wrote, but musically it seems to me to be an improvement. This is an interesting moral dilemma: to what extent are we allowed to use the scores left by composers as a starting point, to be departed from if there are cogent musical reasons? I see nothing wrong in principle, but once the discipline of textual fidelity is removed, it’s easy to overdo things. Still, I do urge you to try out the Barbirolli version, which is very special – I believe it’s the last time he performed in London, just a few weeks before he died.

  4. […] was the case a couple of weeks ago for Bruckner 8, a big orchestra was required, including a quartet of […]

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