James L. Zychowicz
, April 2008
As difficult as it is to identify a single score as representative of its composer, Symphony no. 8 in C minor by Anton Bruckner is an essential work that may be regarded as the quintessence of his accomplishments in the form.
While a number of fine sound recordings exist to convey the aural images of the work, live performances of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony convey the dynamic elements of the score, as conductor interacts with his players to bring out the various elements of this powerful work. Among the recent DVD releases is a compelling performance of this work led by Kent Nagano. In fact, this video appears under the label “Kent Nagano Conducts Classical Masterpieces,” the Arthaus Musik has issued on DVD series of six concerts of essential works, which include Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 “Jupiter”, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 “Eroica”, Schumann’s Symphony no. 3 “Rhenish”, Brahms’ Symphony no. 4, and Richard Strauss’s "Alpine" Symphony, an well-chosen group of pieces that deserve such attention.
The recording is based on a broadcast from German television, which results in high-resolution images typical of the European idiom. With clear details, from the shadows caused by the lighting on the stage to the grain of the wood in the violins and other string instruments, the recording conveys a sense of immediacy. Beyond such a technical feature, the images also show Nagano clearly, as he brings the players together in this complex and demanding score. While the film captures his conducting well enough, a series like this would benefit from an inset of a camera trained on the conductor, so that it would be possible to view Nagano between the times when the camera currently shows him directly. Caught sometimes mid-phrase, and even then perhaps en route to a crescendo or diminuendo, the suddenly view of the conductor seems abrupt, but is certainly not unwelcome. That kind of mixture of images, a convention with DVDs of concert performances, can function, at times, at odds, with the musical line. While these kinds of shots sometimes intrude upon the performance, they can be effective in certain passages of the Finale.
As to the performance itself, the Orchestra has given a memorable reading of Bruckner’s score, with a rich, full sound, and remarkable ensemble. The brass are strong without resorting to stentorian tactics, and the chorale-like passages wonderfully resonant. Likewise, the woodwinds work well together, with the resulting precision bringing the score to sonic life. Percussion with Bruckner sometimes serve a supportive role, but with the Finale, the timpani are prominent and lead the ensemble in conveying the driving rhythms that are essential to the movement. In fact, all the forces of the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester come together with conviction in a powerful reading of the concluding movement in which Nagano demonstrates his mastery of the score. Dramatic without pandering to cliché, thunderous without playing for sheer volume, the Finale works well in Nagano’s hands, and it summarizes, in a sense, his efforts in bringing this work into the series of masterpieces that are the subject of the DVD recordings.
In addition to this performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, the DVD includes a documentary about the work, and at approximately 52 minutes – over half the length of the performance, it is a substantial part of the recording. While the documentary concerns the Symphony featured on this DVD, its label as part five, suggests some relationship to the four recordings that precede it in the set. Yet the film stands alone, and serves as an introduction to those who are unfamiliar with Bruckner in general and who might want some background about the music performed in the concert. This presentation involves some lengthy segments from the concert itself and involves imagines of familiar Bruckner iconography, along with some nature shots. It is intriguing that the producer used animation (led by Martin Mißfeldt and Gerhard Hahn) to depict some quotations from primary sources. Yet the excerpts from the rehearsals, including interviews with performers, help to support the performance recorded on this DVD. Overall, though, the documentary functions well as a pedagogical tool for this work, as the others similarly support the other pieces featured in Nagano’s series of “Masterpieces” of orchestral literature. It is a welcome addition to the concerts available on DVD and a fine performance that merits attention outside the set of Classical Masterpieces.