Of Bruckner’s mighty symphonies, the Eighth is the mightiest. Dedicated to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (although at one stage the repeatedly lovelorn 63 year old composer sought to dedicate it to a young girl he met at the opera, Marie Demar) Bruckner’s hints at its programme speak of such things as ‘the annunciation of death’ in the first movement and the grand meeting of the three emperors of Austria, Germany and Russia, galloping Cossacks storm in with trumpet fanfares, for the finale. Hence the vast panorama over which the work ranges encompasses private grief and public ceremony, and includes in its journey an earthy, stomping dance of a Scherzo and an Adagio of such sublimity and visionary power that many listeners take from it an experience of life-changing spiritual profundity. The whole work lasting in the region of 80 minutes, it is deemed to be enough in length and gravity to stand alone as the only work in an evening’s concert.

Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin © Monika Rittershaus
Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Monika Rittershaus

Barenboim’s Bruckner ‘Project’ performed the symphony as the middle concert of three, after an eloquent performance of the Seventh the previous evening, and with the prospect of the unfinished Ninth to come. The performance got off to a good start, and indeed one could write at length on the felicities of the first movement exposition and the opening of the development. This is a magnificent orchestra, and in these opening pages the presentation of the theme by violas and cellos was so beautifully and variously phrased, so rich and dark in colour, that it promised a great performance. This first theme is craggy and unsettled, using the same distinctive rhythm as the main theme of Beethoven’s Ninth, but shaping it like a grim variation on the Siegfried motive from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. After a fortissimo tutti statement it fades into near silence and the tender, gently rising second theme on first violins steals in - and once again the transition and the playing of the orchestra had all the beauty and restrained expressiveness one could wish for. The development is ushered in by a dialogue between solo horn and oboe above the quietest of violin tremolos - it is a moment of heart-stopping magic, played to perfection here with both precision and individual characterisation. There are two major climaxes to this movement, and the final one leaves the trumpets exposed, stamping out the rhythm of the main theme deprived of melodic content - it is the moment Bruckner called ‘the annunciation of death’ - and it was here that there was the first hint that something was missing, something a bit too laid-back about Barenboim’s approach, a failure to confront the full dramatic power of the work.

Those glorious violas and cellos were wonderful again in their presentation of the obsessively repetitive scherzo theme, beneath swirling mists of descending violin tremolos, but Barenboim’s heavy treatment of trio seemed to pre-empt the territory of the forthcoming Adagio, rather than creating the dreamy pastoral interlude that would seem more appropriate.

The Adagio and Finale are the longest movements of the work, together lasting around 50 minutes, and it was in these movements that the successes and failures of this interpretation were most marked. It goes almost without saying that the quality of the orchestral playing was of the very highest quality, very beautiful but also very humane, with some absolutely stunning work from the horns, Wagner tubas and woodwind soloists. And Barenboim employed some interpretative gestures that worked well. In the Adagio’s second exploration of the main theme group, I liked the way he insisted on focusing on the inversion of the theme in bass, ensuring that the frenetic ecstasy of the violin accompaniment did not overwhelm the argument, and the unmarked accelerando in this section was very exciting and worked well. But his approach to the climax of the movement fell foul of his lack of a basic pulse, the various aborted approaches to the summit failing to contribute to the overall progress, the climax when it finally came sounding arbitrary, its potential undermined. Barenboim uses the Haas edition of the score (a version unconceived by Bruckner, unjustified by scholarship, but nevertheless regarded as the most convincing by some conductors), and at this climax Haas has a harp arpeggio whose last octave of demisemiquavers is totally exposed once the tutti falls silent. Not so tonight: this final flourish was totally suppressed, and the triple forte entry of the strings that follows was turned upside down by exaggerated emphasis on the rising double bass line. It didn’t sound right, but you couldn’t wish to hear a more beautiful dialogue between horns, Wagner tubas and strings in the very quiet, extended coda to the Adagio, Sadly, the failure to hold the structure of the movement left the valedictory sentiment of this passage isolated and bereft of its full meaning.

A similar incoherence was fatal to the Finale, which once again had many wonderful and searingly beautiful moments - but by the time Barenboim accelerated wildly into the famous overlay of the themes of all four movements that concludes the work in blaze of glory, the music had long ago lost its way and the coda seemed hardly relevant, superficial. Every now and then in the course of the movement Barenboim would leap forward and conduct with some urgency as though something significant was afoot, but ultimately it was to no avail and movement could not be rescued. There was some failure or orchestral balance (also occasionally noticeable in the previous evening’s performance) whereby the horns failed to shine through the tutti, so that the significant return of the Scherzo theme early in the coda was barely audible, and the trumpets were not always secure - but overall the orchestra’s contribution was superlative. Somehow it was Barenboim who had failed to harness the very disparate elements of the symphony to work together purposefully towards the main climaxes and the transfiguration of the work’s all-encompassing coda. It was a little disappointing.