If there are saints of music, Anton Bruckner is surely one of them. Like Beethoven, whom he greatly admired, Bruckner was a strong-willed, undaunted composer. Dreadful abysses lurk in Bruckner’s music, but he does not get stuck in them. That Promethean defiance, that raised fist, which is Beethoven’s, is nowhere to be heard. Perhaps for this reason, Bruckner’s seemingly meandering arguments lead to a deeply satisfying destination, while Beethoven’s powerful affirmations, those clearings in the woods he beats a way to, amount to so much less than the effort made.
Like Wagner, whom he regarded as a great master, Bruckner was a religious composer. But there is nothing in him of Wagner’s egocentric pseudo-religion.
Bruckner seems to be rather sceptical of melody and harmony. His huge orchestral edifices are constructed of very basic elements, to which he gives the keenest structural attention. Melody and harmony are richly present, but they grow out of many tiny puzzle pieces which are worked through again and again, as if here, in the minutiae, the importance lies. These, strictly speaking, are incompatible, often enough – the rhythmic opposition of 2 to 3 seems fundamental – still, the music combines them, and in the effort to do so, it digs deeper towards the unknown foundations of the mind and reaches higher, beyond the stars. In some ways, he anticipates the atonal experiments of the twentieth century. But unlike Schoenberg, Webern, and others, Bruckner could never be accused of a cold formalism. He had a profound love for the expressiveness, the communicative power, of music, and he did not hide his respect for the musical tradition. The ordering principle of his music is not the sterile construct of his own intelligence, but the divine order, glimpsed as a gift after long struggle.
Bruckner was an Austrian Roman Catholic of deep, childlike piety. Knowing that he possessed great musical gifts, he spent all his life trying to use them for the glory of the giver. For Bruckner, music was a way to God.
One of the most fascinating passages in Bruckner is the Coda to the Finale of Symphony No. 8 in C Minor. Here, the main themes of the four movements reappear simultaneously in four-part counterpoint in C Major, before the symphony ends with the whole orchestra, a hundred or more musicians, playing the same three notes, E, D, and C. That blaze of C major, and blaze it is, is preceded by a searching digression through different keys, until, after a wonderful dissonance, the music comes home. Home is viscerally transcendental. When that C Major rings out, it opens the way to paradise. Paradise rings out in your bones, and stays with you, a spiritual gift, like the afterglow of solemn liturgy. The feeling of everyday life is transformed. You are anchored for a time in the thought-feeling of God. Religion, indeed.
Many conductors fail to maintain clarity while deploying such vast forces of sound. An example is Furtwängler, whose attempts at the Coda to the Finale sometimes sound like a building being destroyed by bombs. Another is Georg Solti, whose 1992 version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra seems to me to stagger about in confusion until it becomes hopelessly mired in fudge. Solti lacks the excuse of the poor quality of early sound recording that we might allow to stand in the case of Furtwängler. But to give the great German his due, he performed many versions of Bruckner’s Eighth, some of which are reference recordings today. Other conductors are too wary of the low brass, or have orchestras with brass sections that are just not up to the task. An example here is Carlo Maria Giulini, whose version with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 has a clarity and lightness of touch that is certainly interesting, but fails to convince.
Probably the most successful interpretations come from conductors in the old Austro-German tradition who have the benefit of top-class orchestras. Karajan, of course, stands out. But in a symphony which wrestles so often with the darkness to reach for the light, Karajan seems to prefer the darkness, and to show more interest in the agony than the redemption. His live performance from 1979 from Sankt Florian, the monastery where Bruckner lies buried, and with Karajan standing over his tomb, is loud and violent, as if to drown out poor Bruckner’s prayers and keep him safely below ground. It seems that musical brilliance and the authenticity of tradition are not enough for a fully satisfactory performance; something more is required: an affinity with Bruckner’s spiritual intention.
One remarkable interpretation was recorded in Dublin in the mid 1990s by Georg Tintner, an underrated conductor, who was steeped in the Austro-German tradition, and in Bruckner. As a Jew in anti-Semitic Vienna during the rise of the Nazis, Tintner had discovered in Bruckner’s music a source of strength and healing in very dark times. Though not a Catholic, and perhaps not personally religious at all, Tintner knew intimately, and valued highly, the religious action of Bruckner’s music on the mind and emotions. His performance with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland delights the ear with clarity of architecture and with some impressive sound experiences. Unusually, Tintner decided for the 1887 version of the symphony, rather than the more usual 1890 version. In the 1887 version, the Coda to the Finale is constructed a little differently, and the coming of C-major carries less transcendental meaning, being, in Tintner’s interpretation, a prelude to the counterpoint of the four themes rather than the climax in its own right. This C Major is a rediscovery of what was known previously, having already been established in the Coda to the slow movement. There is also a triumphal Coda to the first movement which overturns much of the questing gloom of what had gone before. In the 1890 version, this Coda has been excised, and the first movement ends in desolation, with its question unanswered. Not until the Coda to the Finale does C-Major emerge unchallenged. It is the surprise discovery of what had long been promised, but could nowhere be found. The transcendental achievement shines out all the more.
For excellent performances, one can turn to Eugen Jochum, Günter Wand, and Sergiu Celibidache, who use the 1890 version, though at times in varying editions. Like Bruckner, Jochum and Wand were Catholics. Having lived through the Nazi dictatorship, the horrors of war, and the rebuilding of their ruined country, as indeed Furtwängler and Karajan had done, though without their grave moral compromises, Jochum and Wand, were, like Tintner, on intimate terms with the religious challenge at the heart of the symphony: the struggle to preserve the purity of spiritual longing. Their performances often achieve a rigorous simplicity in the deployment of large forces of sound, and a noble rectitude, of which Furtwängler and Karajan seem incapable, and compensate for with exaggeration.
The Jochum interpretation I know best, a fine recording from 1976 with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, is, however, not free of idiosyncratic touches. The accelerandos added to crescendos, for example, make for a misplaced nervous energy, and because the final three notes are intentionally rushed, the performance lacks a fitting closure.
Günter Wand was known for his painstaking study of the score and for his fidelity to Bruckner’s intention, insofar as that can be gleaned from the mess of collaborative manuscripts and variant editions he left to posterity. Wand’s recordings with the Gürzenich Orchestra, the North German Radio Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic are widely admired.
The Rumanian-born iconoclast, Sergiu Celibidache, belongs to no tradition, though he spent most of his career conducting leading German orchestras. Certainly, the rigorous architecture and the monumental sound of his performances are closer to the Austro-German ideal than to anything else. Celibidache, who is justly renowned for his Bruckner interpretations, infuses, or evokes, probably the greatest spiritual intensity. It is a highly individual, perhaps Gnostic spirituality, leading to music that is often astonishing and is always greatly impressive. His live version of the Eighth Symphony from Tokyo in 1990 has an extraordinary frame of reference. It succeeds in establishing, and in maintaining, an other-worldly point of stillness, a poised silence, out of which, with revelatory inevitability, a Romantic-sounding expansion and contraction is generated. However, this freedom sometimes sits uneasily with the cathedral-like structure and the note of pious submission which are unquestionably Catholic and Brucknerian. By contrast, Wand’s masterly interpretation from 1990 with the North German Radio Orchestra, also live from Tokyo, has more of Bruckner’s humility.
The choice then is between Sergiu Celibidache and Günter Wand. Again, let the Coda decide. In Wand’s version the grace notes in the brass are distinctly audible, in Celibidache’s they are not. Both performances move convincingly into C Major. In both cases, the blaze is a true revelation. Wand, however, manages a forte-piano with full orchestra in the transition that Celibidache does not. Perhaps as a consequence, in Wand’s version, the dissonance leading to the C-major is more marked, and the great spread of the C-Major chord encompasses that bit more of heaven. This time, my vote goes to Wand. Both interpretations are marvellous. But please listen for yourself.
Wand’s version is here:
Celi’s version is here: