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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Recordings Review: Release the Horns

The Thielemann Bruckner Eighth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christian Thielemann. Photo © 2010 Dresden Staatskapelle
This live recording of the Bruckner Eighth marks Christian Thielemann's first recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle since accepting the post of Principal Conductor with that historic German orchestra. It is the finest Bruckner recording to emerge from a major orchestra in several years.

The Eighth (which bears the unofficial nickname "Apocalyptic") is Bruckner's final complete symphony. It went through a number of revisions. The results are a searching, compelling symphony that details the next step on Bruckner's spiritual pilgrimage, accompanied by a gigantic orchestra with a huge brass section. Made in September of 2009, this is an ideal match of players and conductor, as they build a gorgeous cathedral of sound over the symphony's 85-minute length.

With the crack Dresden musicians, Mr. Thielemann creates a towering interpretation. The opening Allegro breathes with a kind of cosmic nobility, as the horns and Wagner tubas utter mysterious portents against a carpet of strings. This recording uses the Haas edition of the score from 1939, fusing together three different versions of this much-revised symphony to make a gestalt edition that lives and breathes with the power of Bruckner's original vision.

Things get even better with the chugging Scherzo, as the entire string section descends to its lowest depths in one majestic, well-developed chord. The woodwinds join the heavenly choir too, echoing the main theme plaintively with skilled oboe and English horn playing. When the brass sound in the work's Trio section, the gates of harmonic heaven open slowly for the listener, bathing the listener in aural light.

With the Adagio, Thielemann stakes his claim to join the company of great Bruckner interpreters, with a slow, gradual development of the composer's musical ideas. The movement opens with trembling violins and allowing the themes to develop and breathe. The music bows under the weight of dread and devotion, as the orchestra surges forth toward an attempted understanding of man's insignificance before Bruckner's vision of the almighty. When the horns enter in a descending theme, some understanding of the beyond is reached. It is a moment of otherworldly inspiration, and the sound of heavenly compassion.

Each Bruckner symphony is a product of the composer's religious devotion and endless theologic wrestling with God. That battle comes to its head in the 25-minute Finale. Here, the performance is rough, almost brutal as Bruckner gets down to the deep problems of existence with some of his most existential music. Thielemann and his superb forces bring a raw immediacy to this live performance, making this an exciting conclusion to the work and an auspicious start to a long collaboration between orchestra and conductor.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.