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Bruckner wrote to Hermann Levi, 'Hallelujah! At long last the Eighth is finished, and my artistic father must be the first to know ... may it find grace!' Levi, who had championed the seventh and the Te Deum didn't understand the sheer scale or span of the new symphony, where melodies and harmonies were so advanced they defied analysis! The composer, despite extra work on his Third Symphony and the chores of publishing the Seventh, subjected the Eighth to close scrutiny and analysis, making constant alterations in a complete rewrite.

Hans Richter's first performance in Vienna received a great ovation, but critic Eduard Hanslick's review was brutal: 'Interesting in places but strange as a whole and even repugnant'.

Bruckner explained to Felix Weingarten his 'programme' for the first movement: the trumpets and horns outburst is 'an annunciation of death'. In the second movement, Der deutsche Michel typifies the 'Austrian folk spirit', the idealistic dreamer, and the Finale is the meeting at Olomouc of Emperor Franz Josef -- the work's dedicatee -- and Tsar Alexander, the rhythmic phrase at the beginning suggesting galloping Cossacks.

This is a long way from my own or other people's impressions, perhaps, but in the last resort elucidations remain in the air when weighted against the power and contentions in the music itself. Demands on interpreters become awesome.

Near the end of his career, Karajan made his final version with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), spread liberally over two CDs, clarifying the textures and reducing the Teutonic weight of his earlier EMI recording mentioned earlier. Celibidache's Munich versions (one on EMI, the other on the Sony video) are even more spacious, bringing marvellous cogency to the whole work at the expense of lasting almost ninety minutes. I have not yet heard his Stockholm Bruckners (DG) but hope to contribute a review in the near future.

Unlike many critics, I will never argue about overall timings which are relative to the conductor's conception, as long as the line, length and structural planning are in accordance with the meaning behind the interpretation in toto. Bruckner symphonies, like the universal thinking processes of his predecessors, can take differences in treatment provided stylistic observance and complete understanding stay foremost in the mind. I was pleasantly surprised when Zubin Mehta performed the Eighth at the Proms with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra -- who clearly know just how the work should sound -- but perhaps I am being unfair, considering Mehta's great admiration for Furtwängler and others of his generation.

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Copyright © 22 July 2001 Bill Newman, Rome, Italy




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