New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon
Friday, 12 October 2018
Bruckner Symphony No. 8 Haenchen
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 8 (1890 version, ed. Nowak)
Hartmut Haenchen, cond;
Royal Danish Orchestra
Hartmut Haenchen writes in his liner note to this
release that Bruckner’s attitude to tempo was based on a desire for clarity, emphasizing
a vocal quality in the melodic lines, a result of his “Classicist” temperament.
In practice, that means fast tempos throughout, and at less than 70 minutes,
this is the fastest Bruckner Eighth on my shelf. Haenchen also cautions against
“non-notated portamenti,” and duly
avoids any such extravagances. Yet the written tempo markings and changes are
generally acknowledged, and this is a significantly more fluid reading than
many. Haenchen also takes great care with articulation, the accents often
emphatic, but never arbitrary. The result is a distinctive take on the
symphony, often lacking in grandeur and majesty, but generally coherent and
always faithful to the text, at least as Haenchen reads it.
The Royal Danish Orchestra plays with precision and
commitment, though the string sound lacks character and the lower brass lacks
weight—a slick, professional sound but clearly outside of the Central European
tradition. The opening of the first movement feels brisk, although, as Haenchen
states, he is also careful to avoid clipped notes, so we get broad phrasing
from the strings, even at this pace. The tempo transitions in the movement seem
to be conceived with a mathematical precision: They always function perfectly,
but there is little poetry in the process.
The Scherzo second movement is the most successful for
Haenchen’s approach—fast again, but characterized more by the strong accents in
the lower strings than by the tempo itself. The generally light textures here
allow those accents to propel the music. Elsewhere, and especially in the outer
movements, they tend to make the music sound merely deliberate, rather than imposing.
Clear textures and fast tempos also characterize the Adagio. Haenchen’s contention that the
vocal quality of the melodic lines should determine the tempo is generally
vindicated here, and although the movement is over in a brief 21:47, it rarely
feels rushed. That said, the portamentos that, while not notated, can be
considered integral to the performing tradition, are sorely missed. For
instance, when Bruckner ends a long phrase with a quintuplet turn before the
cadence, surely he doesn’t need to state that the music should broaden? But in
the absence of any such indication, Haenchen ploughs on. Similarly with the
Wagner tuba chorales, which are integrated into the fabric, rather than
appearing as moments of transcendence. Haenchen does slow and broaden for the
climax, but loses the flow in the process, leading to ragged phrasing in the coda.
The opening of the Finale is taken too fast for the
orchestra (Haenchen this time ignoring the …nicht
schnell) and it takes a while for the ensemble to settle down. Again,
though, Haenchen makes a convincing case for the dramatic potential of up-tempo
Bruckner, even if the relationships between his often surprising tempos are
difficult to pin down.
The recording was made at the Royal Danish Opera House,
and the orchestra is captured in clear, if slightly dry audio. Although it is
not labeled as a live recording, some audience noise gives the game away. The notes
don’t tell us that this is the Nowak edition either, although the short running
time is a big clue. For reasons unexplained, the album carries the title Mystery, an ironic choice, given that
mystery is the one essential Brucknerian quality that Haenchen’s interpretation
This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 42:3.