There are four extant versions of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8.
The earliest version—but the one published last—was the composer’s 1887 version (often referred to as the “original” version). Bruckner’s 1887 score was known only by a handful of Bruckner scholars until 1972, when Leopold Nowak published his edition of the 1887 score. The Nowak edition of the 1887 score has never made much headway with performers or audiences. Indeed, no Bruckner conductor of note had taken up the 1887 Nowak edition until Franz Welser-Most added it to his repertory in recent years.
[A reworking of the 1887 Adagio was composed in 1888. It was not published, and it is very, very seldom performed, even as a curiosity or as a stand-alone composition (although it has been recorded).]
The second version of the Bruckner Eighth—but the one published third—was the composer’s first revision, completed in 1890. Bruckner altered the conclusion of the first movement, changed tonalities in parts of the Adagio, altered orchestration (primarily by going from double to triple winds), and imposed numerous cuts upon the score. Nowak published his edition of the 1890 score in 1955. The Nowak edition of the 1890 score, upon release, caused an immediate sensation. The edition was picked up at once by numerous Bruckner conductors (most prominent of which was Eugen Jochum) and was to become one of two versions of the Eighth accepted as authoritative and heard with some frequency.
The third version of the Symphony No. 8—but the one published first—represented the composer’s final thoughts on the score. Completed (and published) in 1892, the third version imposed new and additional cuts upon the 1890 score. The 1892 version was the only version of the Symphony No. 8 to be performed during the composer’s lifetime—as well as the only version to be heard for the next 47 years. Conductors whose careers were in full swing before 1939—Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hans Knappertsbusch and Bruno Walter, among others—learned the 1892 version of the score and continued to perform it with some frequency until their deaths. The 1892 score, considered superseded after 1939, has disappeared from today’s concert halls. According to The Bruckner Society, the 1892 score was last heard in 1971, when an aging William Steinberg conducted it with the Boston Symphony.
The fourth and final version of the Eighth—but the one published second—appeared in 1939. In that year, Robert Haas published an edition that combined the 1887 and 1890 versions of the score, always retaining the triple winds from the 1890 version. The most important element of Haas’s work was the restoration of cuts the composer had made in 1890 and 1892. Haas believed—rightly, in my opinion—that the cuts destroyed the structural perfection of the work. The Haas 1939 edition, too, caused an immediate sensation, virtually replacing the composer-sanctioned 1892 edition overnight. An entire generation of then-young conductors eagerly took up the Haas edition—most conspicuously, Herbert Von Karajan—and the Haas edition quickly became standard, holding sway until 1955. It was only with publication of the first Nowak edition that many (but not all) scholars began to note a preference for the 1955 Nowak. The Haas edition nevertheless continues to attract numerous performers and performances, and this is so despite the fact that Haas’s work has been criticized in some quarters for its “creative” solutions in melding together the best of the 1887 and 1890 versions, both of which were sanctioned by the composer. Among other things, Haas has been criticized for composing eight bars of music that do not appear in any of Bruckner’s completed versions (although Haas always noted that the eight bars in question appeared in Bruckner’s sketches while the score was undergoing one of its many transformations).
I have always favored the Haas edition of the Eighth. It preserves more of Bruckner’s original 1887 thoughts than any other version, while retaining the more grandiloquent orchestration of the 1890 revision. It is a miraculous melding of the two surviving autograph scores, and provides a more satisfying—and more glorious—listening experience than either the pure 1887 score or the pure 1890 score (the 1892 score has entirely dropped from view, and has no living advocates, either among scholars or performers). Active conductors who perform the “corrupt” Haas edition in preference to either of the Nowak editions include Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Blomstedt, Pierre Boulez, Christoph Dohnanyi, Bernard Haitink and Christian Thielemann.
Last weekend, while we were in Cleveland, Joshua and I heard Welser-Most lead the Cleveland Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8—and Welser-Most conducted the 1887 version published by Nowak in 1972. I believe it was the first time I had heard the Nowak edition of the 1887 version in concert.
Hearing the 1887 version live, I found it immediately apparent that the 1887 version was less upholstered than the Haas reworking, no doubt the result of leaner orchestration. Otherwise, I thought the 1887 version preserved Bruckner’s original structure and was much superior to the 1890 reworking, which I have never found to be convincing, even in the hands of a Jochum or a Riccardo Chailly, another distinguished Bruckner conductor that prefers the Nowak edition of the 1890 version. However, the Haas still strikes me as the preferred version of this most noble of all symphonic works.
The Cleveland Orchestra performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, alone, made our trip to Cleveland worthwhile.
The Cleveland Orchestra remains the glory of the world. Its level of ensemble is unmatched by any other orchestra. Its transparency of sound is phenomenal. The orchestra’s intonation is so pure, and the orchestral balance so perfect, that Cleveland makes the Berlin Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw Orchestra sound pitch-challenged and in need of balance adjustment. Merely to hear the subtlety of the Cleveland Orchestra’s voicings is one of the greatest pleasures to be had anywhere.
I was, once again, in awe of this most exalted of ensembles.
The performance of Bruckner’s Eighth was at the highest possible level. It was, I believe, a near-great performance.
The first movement did not get off to a particularly promising start, but such did not surprise me. The first movement of the Eighth is the least successful and least interesting movement of the symphony. Many, perhaps most, Bruckner scholars contend that the first movement of the Eighth is the greatest of all Bruckner first movements, but I have never accepted such claim. The first movement is, for me, the one movement of the symphony that is not inspired, certainly in comparison to the three sublime movements that follow. The first movement of the Symphony No. 8 is, for me, just another Bruckner first movement, complete with The Bruckner Rhythm that I have always found to be an irritating tic. I admire the movement’s complexity, I admire how the movement is built, I admire the many subtle intricacies the composer uses as he plays with sonata form in his very personal and very unique way—yet the first movement does not, for me, provide the many rewards on offer in the following three movements. The movement, in my view, is no better than the first movement of the composer’s Symphony No. 5.
I did not think that Welser-Most did anything special with the first movement—but at least he kept things moving, which probably was his primary intent.
In this symphony, things begin to get interesting in the second movement, the Scherzo, intended to be placed after the Adagio in the composer’s first thoughts. From the opening bars, I am invariably swept away by what I believe to be Bruckner’s greatest Scherzo movement—and I generally remain in the Symphony’s grip until the conclusion of the final movement.
In Cleveland, I thought Welser-Most did not bring enough character or personality (or menace, for that matter) to this great movement. I wanted more power, more sweep, more drama than Welser-Most supplied—yet I wondered, throughout the movement, whether Welser-Most was holding power in check in preparation for a resplendent conclusion in the final movement. I also wondered whether I simply missed the more opulent orchestration of the Haas edition.
The Adagio, for me, contains Bruckner’s greatest writing. Twenty-five minutes of sheer genius, the Adagio is one of the most miraculous statements in all of Western music. The movement is so inspired, and so profound, that I have never encountered a satisfactory analysis of it.
After two slightly disappointing movements, Welser-Most came into his own in the great Adagio, giving as fine an account as any living conductor might muster. His music-making was controlled but not clinical. There was spirituality, but no fake emotion. The Adagio had the necessary solemnity and gravitas, but Welser-Most nowise attempted to make a meal of it.
The final movement of the Bruckner Eighth is, for me, thrilling. It is one of the great concluding movements in the symphonic literature, a genuinely epic culmination, containing the widest possible range of emotion and the most skillful handling of complex thematic manipulation.
Welser-Most gave a commanding account of the final movement. If anything, I thought he was better in the final movement than in the great Adagio. The final movement can fall apart in lesser hands, yet Welser-Most maintained focus and concentration (and forward momentum) without imposing rigidity upon the music. He never lost control for a moment, in itself a great achievement, and yet the music blossomed as it must.
Josh and I witnessed last weekend the kind of performance we all-too-seldom hear: a special performance by a special orchestra under a special conductor. Last weekend’s concert joins a couple of Chailly Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts—one in London and one in Boston—as the finest evenings in the concert hall Josh and I have experienced in the last four years.
We were fortunate to be able to spend an evening in Severance Hall.
And Cleveland is a very lucky town.