With the Seventh Symphony Bruckner had had great success outside Vienna, and pleaded with Hans Richter not to perform it in Vienna for fear of the sheer nastiness of the critics. Nevertheless Richter went ahead, to stunning success, and he announced that “from now on our brilliant compatriot will never again find it necessary to make a detour via a host of foreign musical cities … No, in future every new Bruckner symphony will first be changed from the pages of the score into sound in Vienna itself, in the concerts of the Philharmonic.”  And the Eighth did indeed receive its first performance in Vienna. It was Bruckner’s greatest triumph: “This symphony is the creation of a giant,” wrote Hugo Wolf.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd

So to hear Bruckner’s Eighth in Vienna, played by the Vienna Philharmonic, is an occasion that carries the weight of an extraordinary composing and performance history.  I heard it just once before in Vienna, in 1983 when, if I remember correctly, Eugen Jochum was indisposed and his place was taken by Carl Melles.  On this occasion indisposition also led to a change of conductor: Jaap van Zweden taking the place of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and making his debut performance with the Vienna Philharmonic.  With the change of conductor came a change of edition.  Many Brucknerians are much exercised by the differences between the two most-performed editions, that edited by Robert Haas and that of Leopold Nowak.  (On the horizon is a new edition by the much-respected American Bruckner scholar, Paul Hawkshaw of Yale University, whose report on the sources for the Eighth Symphony will, we hope, clarify much that is unclear about the genesis of these scores.) Nézet-Séguin uses the Haas edition, with much disputed additional bars; van Zweden uses the Nowak edition that sought to restrict itself more precisely to Bruckner’s intentions. The choice of edition is significant as there is something more reflective and less uncompromising about the Haas score, and van Zweden’s interpretation left little room for inner contemplation. 

The opening was wonderfully handled, and it seemed like a dream come true to be in Vienna to hear these opening phrases on the low strings, searching and uneasy, shaped to perfection, each with a slight diminuendo at the end, enhancing the sense of anxiety and tentativeness. Come the blazing glory at the end of the symphony, total certainty is achieved, the same theme transformed and built into a complex structure in C major that combines the main themes of all four movements, and this too was splendidly done: van Zweden ensured the full pause – almost two bars – was observed before the coda began, allowing the full significance of the structural event to register, before over pianissimo drum beats the Wagner tubas intoned their solemn melody, full of gravity and anticipation – wonderfully played! – building up to the tremendous peroration. Were it a matter of the beginning and the end alone, then this would have been a five-star performance.

Some limitation of van Zweden’s expressive palette, it seems to me, became apparent in the characterisation of the three themes of the first movement.  With the arrival of the second subject group there there was little change in the tone of voice, no new access of lyricism to beguile us in Bruckner’s ‘song period’.  Some of the difficulty was a lack of subtlety in the grading of dynamics, the strings allowed to get too loud too soon, the various stepped levels of Bruckner’s markings not carefully observed. If the dramatic contrast between the themes is underplayed, the creative tension within the architecture is reduced.  There were some problems of balance, the triplets of the horns within the build up to final climax of the first movement barely audible.  The last bars repeated ‘death watch’ motive were perfectly done – no compromise, no slowing down: life’s clock just stopped.

The Scherzo is marked Allegro moderato, but van Zweden did his best to banish any moderation and went for it hell for leather. The difficulty was that the articulation of the oft-repeated theme lost its stamping rhythmic accentuation, so for all the speed there was some lack of potency – but the Trio was superb.  It’s a dreamy interlude with a central section where the dream deepens, and this was very affectingly played.

The very opening of the Adagio was sabotaged by the clatter of falling glassware, a distraction that would have merited recommencing the movement so signalling the importance of this music, but van Zweden chose to plough on. The performance began to recover in the passionately played second theme group. Bruckner’s score calls for three harps ‘if possible’.  It seems for our concert it was not possible, for there was just one harpist, her valiant efforts inaudible at the heaven-storming Adagio climax.  Nevertheless, the climax had been well structured and came over with full power, but the coda seemed to shy away from anything too soft and expressive.

Predictably the Finale was far faster than Bruckner’s metronome mark – it nearly always is – but the brass of the Vienna Philharmonic were magnificent in these great opening fanfares.  As in the first movement the variety of turbulent expressive characterisation was perhaps not exploited to the full, the extrovert timpani-supported tutti explosions coming off best.  The triangle player, who has only two moments in the Adagio to display his skill, was called upon to double the efforts of the regular timpanist in the closing bars, more of a theatrical than an audible effect.  The final falling three notes, a heavy ritenuto applied, had a splendid finality that often eludes conductors and orchestras.  It was a magnificent close to a good performance that lacked merely the last ounce of imaginative aspiration.