When Bruckner presented the first score of his Symphony No. 8 to his conductor of choice, Hermann Levi, in 1887, the maestro rejected it and the work was not performed until 1892, under Hans Richter in Vienna. After the première, critic Eduard Hanslick contended in Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse that: “Interminable, disorganized, and violent, Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony stretches out into a hideous length… It is not impossible that the future belongs to this nightmarish Katzenjammer style, a future which we therefore do not envy.”

Bernard Haitink and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra © Priska Ketterer
Bernard Haitink and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Priska Ketterer

Not surprisingly, the Eighth made an entirely different impression on us recent concertgoers in Lucerne, whom Bernard Haitink and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under his baton brought to our feet in almost devout appreciation. Of all the Bruckner symphonies, the Eighth was the only one Claudio Abbado did not perform with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, whose members he handpicked from the finest of European orchestras. As such, Haitink’s completing the Bruckner cycle was a memorable tribute.

What’s more, with this concert, we were celebrating Haitink’s 50th appearance at the Lucerne Festival, in sum: the career and engagement of an artist who has been a role model for countless musicians and conductors of the current generation. While at just short of 86 years, Haitink takes a somewhat more studied walk between the offstage door and the podium, and sits down periodically on a high stool facing the orchestra, age has only modestly altered his artistry. His conducting has always been economical, more intuitive than that of many others. His hands rarely move up or down more than a few inches; sometimes from behind, it seems he is hardly moving them at all. Yet as one of the players in this orchestra said, “He makes his intention clear with his presence alone. He has absolute control, without having to control.”

Performed here in the Leopold Nowak version (1972), the sinuous theme of the Allegro moderato was struck through by Reinhold Friedrich’s fine solo trumpet. By contrast, Lucas Macias Navarro’s oboe was almost magical in its quiet restraint. From the start, Haitink was to stretch the spaces between the themes. Albeit by milliseconds, that pause underscored the dualism that pervades the entire symphony – dark to light, close to distant, calamitous and hushed.

After what music critic Thomas May cites as the “anguished harmonic ambiguity” of that first movement, the ebullient start of the Scherzo was just thrilling, none the least because of Chiara Tonelli’s brilliant upbeat flute, and what I noted as a “festive cacophony” against a rich weave of strings and the entrance of the harps. Angelic as they are, it was hard for me not to equate the harps’ presence with Anton Bruckner’s’s devout Catholicism, a conviction so integral to his daily routine that it largely defined the course of his life.

Other conductors of the Eighth have asked for more prominent, if not bombastic horns. I was aware much more here of the powerful substance and tremendous nuances among the woodwinds. In the Adagio, the musicians moved slowly, even hesitatingly, at first, and the harp also had a key presence. There is enough romantic pulp in this movement to fill two concert halls, and Haitink gave us a dreamlike landscape, roping the sound in and out, sometimes even inducing an effect that could have been scored for a moonwalk. The timpani rolls were as fast as to pass for bees’ wings. And while, again, the score was arranged as a compilation of individual musical parcels, Haitink’s elegant machinations drew them seamlessly into a perfect whole.

In the Finale, the horns did take the lead, and a virtual Wechselbad of tempi and colour made for a dynamic that was just inspired. Timpanist Raymond Curf’s sustained gestures, even holding his mallets for a second in a tight angle around his body between strikes, made his performance of this symphony as theatrical as any I’ve ever “seen”. Overall, though, the score led one instrument thread into another, all the players clearly taking great pleasure in the tapestry they were weaving under maestro Haitink’s hand. Finally, thanks to the effect of the score’s many marked contrasts, the degree of sweetness that emerged after the buoyancy of the horns was close to celestial.