Herbert Von Karajan owned Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, the composer’s final complete symphony. The Bruckner Eighth may have been the single work from the orchestral literature in which Karajan most majestically demonstrated his incomparable gifts.
Karajan conducted the Eighth from early in his career until the very end of his life. He spent more than sixty years studying the score, and more than fifty-two years performing it in concert. Karajan gave more performances of the Eighth—sixty-three in all—than any other Bruckner symphony. (There were 53 Karajan performances of the Seventh, 38 of the Ninth, 32 of the Fifth and 19 of the Fourth; Karajan recorded but never performed in concert the First, Second, Third and Sixth.)
Karajan recorded the Eighth three times—and a tape survives of a fourth, incomplete wartime recording. All are transcendent readings. In fact, they are the four finest readings of the Bruckner Eighth ever captured on tape.
The wartime recording, from June 28, 1944 (the second and third movements, in mono) and September 29, 1944 (the fourth movement, in stereo), has been legendary for decades. Like Furtwängler’s equally-legendary wartime recording of Bruckner’s Ninth (from October 7, 1944), Karajan’s wartime Bruckner Eighth is filled with the deepest spirituality and the starkest, most abject despair. Karajan’s and Furtwängler’s 1944 Bruckner performances provide unforgettable experiences—they are terrifying musical portraits of a world and civilization on the very brink of collapse.
Unlike Furtwängler, who never returned to the Bruckner Ninth after his great wartime performances, Karajan continued to perform the Bruckner Eighth for the rest of his life (Karajan’s final performance of the Eighth was in Carnegie Hall five months before his death).
Recording-wise, Karajan’s 1957 Berlin Philharmonic recording for EMI, issued in 1958, was an improvement over the famed 1944 wartime recording. The 1975 Berlin Philharmonic recording for Deutsche Grammophon, issued in 1976, was an improvement over the EMI recording. The 1988 Vienna Philharmonic recording for Deutsche Grammophon, issued that same year, was the finest and most profound of all. Karajan’s 1988 performance of the great Adagio is one of the greatest half-hours ever captured by microphones. Karajan's Adagio is so incandescent, so supremely musical and of such utter nobility that it renders the entire recorded output of Leonard Bernstein largely irrelevant.
It was impossible for me not to be reminded of Karajan’s unique authority in the Bruckner Eighth on Friday evening, when my parents and Joshua and I attended a Minnesota Orchestra performance of the Bruckner Eighth conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, former Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra.
Skrowaczewski is considered by many to be the leading Bruckner conductor of the day. However, Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner has never moved me.
I find Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner to be rough-hewn. Skrowaczewski dispenses with the many luxuries of sound for which Karajan was renowned—exploration of color, depth and texture as well as intricate layering and voicing of instruments—and instead seeks an unadorned presentation of the musical argument. Even my father, a great fan of Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner, acknowledges that it is hard not to wish for “the sheer glamour of sound” that Karajan brought to Bruckner’s music.
I also find Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner to be untheatrical. The spellbinding drama and grand rhetoric Karajan found in Bruckner are nowhere present in Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner performances. Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner, in comparison to Karajan’s, is earnest but plain.
In short, I found Friday evening’s performance to be of limited pleasure, tending toward the dry and dull, and rather a trial to endure. I also found the playing of the Minnesota Orchestra to be unimpressive, although I would be the first to admit that the Minnesota Orchestra is not a Bruckner orchestra.
The Minnesota Orchestra had last programmed the Bruckner Eighth in October 2005—and those most recent performances, too, had been under Skrowaczewski (a pirate recording of one of the 2005 performances is available in Japan). The previous Minnesota Orchestra performances of the Bruckner Eighth had been in 1988, when Klaus Tennstedt conducted the score in a series of sensational performances still remembered in the Twin Cities. My father says that Friday night’s Skrowaczewski performance was not much different from the 2005 Skrowaczewski rendition—and not nearly as searching as Tennstedt’s 1988 performance, which my father recalls as “thrilling, albeit more than a bit peculiar”.
I last heard the Bruckner Eighth two years ago, when Josh and I traveled from Boston to Cleveland to hear Franz Welser-Möst lead the Cleveland Orchestra in the great work. Welser-Möst had used Bruckner’s original 1887 score, an unheard-of concept until recent years. On Friday night, Skrowaczewski used his personal amalgamation of the 1939 Haas and 1955 Nowak editions.
My father insists that Friday evening’s performance was entirely commendable, worthy of the highest appreciation. On the podium was one of the most dedicated and respected musicians of the day, leading a performance of one of the greatest works in the symphonic repertory—a work he has studied and cherished for decades—with an orchestra he has conducted for over fifty years. After the performance, my father noted, “Had this performance been offered in a city that loves Bruckner, such as Berlin or Vienna, the audience would have applauded for thirty minutes.”
Friday night’s Minneapolis audience did not applaud for thirty minutes—but it did applaud for almost ten minutes, certainly not a crime in a city without a Bruckner audience.
Friday night’s concert attracted a capacity crowd, which I found gratifying—although the size of the audience had more to do with respect and admiration for Skrowaczewski than love for the music of Bruckner.
Skrowaczewski will soon be 89 years old. Last weekend’s concerts will likely be among his last in Minneapolis—and there had been a concerted effort among local music-lovers to provide Skrowaczewski with a sizable audience for a concert of music by a composer Skrowaczewski has championed for over half a century.
There was another reason for such a large crowd on Friday night.
At the conclusion of the concert, The Bruckner Society Of America presented a medal to Skrowaczewski in honor of Skrowaczewski’s long service to the music of the great Austrian master. Many persons had come to the hall, no doubt, out of loyalty: they wanted to be present for a ceremony of special importance to Skrowaczewski, and to show their support for a man who has given much to the musical life of the Twin Cities.
The ceremony was dignified, and also stirring. The audience interrupted the presentation several times with warm and sustained applause.
It was, I thought, a beautiful occasion.