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EXPLORING MUSIC: Grand, Grander, Grandest--Bruckner's Symphony 8 in C Minor

The MHS Review 389 Vol. 11 No.11 1987

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Frank Cooper


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For maximal enjoyment of the hour-and-a-quarter of Bruckner's stunning Eighth Symphony, you need to suspend your sense of time, by set­tling back in a comfortable chair, clos­ing your eyes (or turning off the lights), and letting your ears take you on a majestic voyage. The four movements provide so many aural vistas, one more wonderful than the next, that your imagination can roam leisurely and luxuriously through the world of silken strings, gleaming brasses, choruslike woodwinds, and thunderous percussion.

Sound for its own sake is one of Bruckner's trademarks. Not for nothing was he an organist most of his life, with the timbres and dynamics of dozens of ranks of pipes always within his reach. Deriving his orchestration from his experience at the organ, the Austrian master lays it on in great slabs of sound the way an artist with a broad brush spreads paint on his can­vas: no fussy or tricky effects. Bruckner's innermost feelings unfold vast panoramas before our ears as the compositional strategies of cyclical form permit.

The Eighth's breadth requires eight horns, three kinds of trombones, three each of the other kinds of brass and woodwinds, three harps, and strings in proportion. Members with good sound systems will discover a dynamic range as grand as the music itself and timbres galore. By setting the volume level to reasonably "im­age" the solo instruments heard dur­ing the first movement, Bruckner's climaxes will send your spirits soar­ing. Those who live in parts of the country where the experience of hear­ing a Bruckner symphony Jive is im­possible should not miss the occasion of this release and the opportunity its technology offers to approximate in your own home one of the grander masterpieces to have come from the pen of this unusual composer.

Bruckner's huge scheme of things calls for: a first movement which, in its amplitude and brusque ending, raises more questions than it answers; a second movement to distract us from those questions through a display of national temperament (a Landler, or folk dance, seemingly for a giant) with a similarly abrupt con­clusion; a slow movement in which lyrical ecstasy and anguished torment alternate with increasing elaboration; and a finale which resolves all the dif­ferences and answers every question in a blaze of glory. In the course of this music, the themes of all four movements are reconciled and brought together in what one writer aptly calls "a contrapuntal peroration of surpassing grandeur."

The cumulative quality of the Bruckner Eighth can only be felt by those who let it sweep them along on its waves of tone, melody, and har­mony. My recommendation about hearing it free from any visual an­noyances is sincere. The work's magic is special and works only if you give it your undivided attention.

A point for those concerned about the spread of this work over four sides: Bruckner's sonic panorama is so enormous that it should not be com­promised through compression, as has happened, onto three sides. The grooves need space for their distortion-free amplitude. Another point: this is not the later, more often recorded revision (effectively, a dif­ferent piece) but the inspired original version from 1885--the manuscript which an exhilarated Bruckner sign­ed with the expostulation ''Hallelujah!''.

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