Sergiu Celibidache, the Munich Philharmonic’s Principal Conductor from 1979 to 1996, famously described Bruckner as “God’s greatest gift”, so it was a fitting tribute to the great maestro to perform one of the composer’s greatest works, the monumental Eighth Symphony, at his 100th birthday concert. At the helm was the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate, Zubin Mehta, a friend of the late Celibidache, and it was clear from the outset that this was to be a particularly special musical event, bringing together this orchestra’s wonderful history with Bruckner and Mehta’s deeply emotional approach to the music.

Sergiu Celibidache giving a conducting lesson at The Curtis Institute in 1984 to David Bernard
Sergiu Celibidache giving a conducting lesson at The Curtis Institute in 1984 to David Bernard

Bruckner’s Symphony no. 8, sometimes nicknamed the “Apocalyptic”, is seen by many as the symphonic incarnation of Wagner’s music dramas. This great “cathedral of sound”, as it is often described, is vast not only in length, but in its emotional scope and its broad array of colours. The first movement contains three main themes, where two is the usual option; the scherzo has multiple trios, something not often seen in large, late-Romantic symphonies; the slow-movement is simply vast in length; and the finale, like the first movement, uses three themes. This is not just a regular symphony engorged; the whole structure is expanded to give it greater length and emotional means.

From the very first note of the opening tremolo it was clear that this was going to be a fantastic performance. Bruckner’s music requires total engagement from every player in every note, and that’s what the Munich Philharmonic gave. So often tremolos and accompaniments sound flat, but the strings brought out the tension of this opening gesture, giving it the emotional charge it so often lacks. The sound itself was mesmerising, with one of the fullest string sounds you could hope for, and a blend which created a whole so much greater than the sum of its parts. Throughout the first movement Mehta led the orchestra with a real sense of the symphony’s overall structure. Big symphonies, such as this one, can become little more than a series of brassy climaxes, even in the hands of the best conductors and orchestras, but here the high points were all integrated into a larger sense of the work’s architecture, each one a stopping point on the way to the emotional core of the music, still some movements away. However, that’s not to say that they weren’t in themselves mindblowing. By really exploiting the quiet dynamics, and bringing out the full range of timbre and details in the fortes, Mehta made this an exciting journey of orchestral colour and emotion.

The second movement, a restless scherzo, once again showed off the orchestra’s wonderful string sound, not just as a whole, but when Bruckner highlights the individual sections. The violins in particular have such a deep sound and range of colours, that at times they sound almost like cellos. The woodwind section have retained a way of playing which seems to have been forgotten by many orchestras, with the focus being on the sectional sound, breathing and blending together, rather than on the solos. Even when playing simple held notes, there was an inherent emotion in the sound, which always added something. Sadly the solos suffered a little in relation to the tuttis, seeming somewhat monochrome and underplayed from all the section principals.

The slow movement, at almost half an hour in length, is the work’s emotional core and somehow feels like an unspoken revelation of Bruckner’s deeply-held Catholic faith. One of the hardest things about performing a movement of this length is keeping the intangible golden thread running through it. The Munich Philharmonic do an enviable job, with many seemingly endless phrases, but the narrative seemed to lose its way at times, resurfacing only some time later, and the result was that, just occasionally, you really felt the length of the movement, and not in a positive way. In spite of this, in this movement we finally reach the true fortissimo which we’ve been waiting for since the first note, and in the hands of this wonderful orchestra it was truly awe-inspiring. Never have I heard an orchestra produce so much sound without even a hint of forcing.

The path of this work’s long, emotional journey was rediscovered in its entirety for the finale, when the slow movement gives way to a torrent of fiery violence. The orchestra played this movement with conviction, giving it everything they had, and though the brass occasionally overpowered the strings in the climaxes here – something so masterfully avoided in the previous three movements – this performance of the finale really gave meaning to the title “Apocalyptic”.

This concert was supposed to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the orchestra’s most famous music directors, who turned them into one of the greatest orchestras in the world. Many see this time as the orchestra’s heyday, but this performance from this incredible orchestra, with one of the world’s finest conductors on the podium, showed that Celibidache’s legacy lives on in this orchestra that really has it all.