Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor;
CD Number: BBCL 4159-2
Carlo Maria Giulini conducted many great orchestras over the course of his long career, but the two that he was closest to were the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. Coincidentally, the then 41-year-old maestro made his debut with both the Philharmonia and the Chicago Symphony in the same year, l955. But whereas in Chicago, Giulini had to wait fourteen years to make a record with the orchestra; in London, he didn't do any recording with the Philharmonia after 1964 -- an anomaly, given that he had made all of his early recordings with the orchestra and continued to conduct them in concert until the end of his career.
These live performances capture the maestro at two very different stages in his evolution as an artist. The Dvorak was made at the time he was evolving from a young firebrand to the more mature and individual conductor we hear on the Chicago recordings I discuss elsewhere in this issue. There is, in fact, an earlier recording of the Dvorak (again with the Philharmonia) on EMI, and that performance -- like other examples of early Giulini -- favors brisk, athletic tempos and lean sonorities, and is very tightly organized. This 1963 concert performance, recorded just a few years later, has many of those same characteristics, but is more yielding, personal, and imaginative in communicating the lyrical side of Dvorak's inspiration.
As a result, the first and last movements still move at a sometimes exhilarating pace, but the more songful passages are treated more respectfully, if not personally, than on the studio recording. And the inner movements, though very cohesively structured, positively glow. One wouldn't call this an especially idiomatic (Slavic or Bohemian-sounding) performance. For that, you had best turn to Ivan Fischer's recording with his magnificent Budapest festival Orchestra on Philips (or, if you're willing to put up with less than modern sound, the several recordings by Vaclav Talich and the Czech Philharmonic, or George Szell's early mono recording with the Concertgebouw). There are, truth be told, many terrific recordings of this work, but this version captures Giulini and the Philharmonia at their most personable, sparkling, and expressive.
The Bruckner is from 1983, and represents late Giulini. Though there are performances from this period that are slack and uninspired, performances where Giulini seems reluctant to impose any interpretive point-of-view on the music, this Bruckner isn't one of them. Though very expansive, there is always an inner logic, an inner tension driving the argument -- as well as a sure-handed sense of structure; a huge, arching, and noble progression that connects moment to moment, first note to last. Still, this searching, ruminative performance is probably going to be too personal, too inward, and too slow for most listeners.
But for those willing to follow where Giulini is leading, there are considerable rewards. Though I distrust the word "spirituality," especially after the last election, that's essentially the Bruckner Giulini gives us here: a sublime work of "heavenly length," a vision of grandeur and timelessness.
Though Giulini did record the Bruckner Eighth a year later with the Vienna Philharmonic for DG, and the timings of both performance are just about the same, this is the more intense performance. The live occasion counts for something here; and though one can't fault the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic (especially in Bruckner), the response of the Philharmonia is, quite simply, phenomenal. Playing at slow tempos is a difficult task for even the most able musicians, but sustaining tempos this deliberate is doubly so. And yet the orchestra's concentration and intensity never flag. And miraculously, they don't drop a note over the course of the entire 85-minute performance.
The sound on the Bruckner is the best I've heard on the BBC Legends series: clear and open at the top, detailed in the middle, convincingly warm at the bottom. The Dvorak is not quite as good, and does show some signs of compression. But the clear and superbhonest sound does justice to a performance that all who love this conductor (or this particular symphony) will want to hear. I haven't mentioned the Hall Overture, an encore that closes out this wonderful set in a blaze of glory.