Bruckner’s Eighth symphony is the biggest of all 19th century symphonies, and if any one orchestra could exercise a performing claim on it, that orchestra would be the Vienna Philharmonic. In their second Prom of the season they reminded us why.
Some memorable recordings of the Eighth have come from this source, those from Herbert von Karajan and Carlo Maria Giulini to name just two more recent examples. In addition several classic Proms concerts have featured this work, one of which from Reginald Goodall in 1969 introduced me to this mighty piece (I wasn’t there, I hasten to add!) While Christoph Eschenbach was no doubt aware of the work’s illustrious performing and recorded history, he succeeded in imposing his own view of the piece on a memorable Proms occasion.
Opting for the slightly shorter edition by Leopold Nowak, Eschenbach’s choice of tempi was on the slow side, and nowhere more so than the slow movement itself. And yet it didn’t drag as the orchestra held their intensity, fragmented string chorales bringing an almost sacred purity whenever they appeared. The use of silence was good, too, a quality underrated in Bruckner, who often uses expressive pauses as an opportunity to take stock before moving on.
His stick fluttering in an imaginary wind, and clad in black from top to toe, Eschenbach looked every inch the maestro. Conducting without a score, he cajoled each section – nodding enthusiastically to bring out rarely heard inner parts of the string texture, although the woodwind occasionally suffered from under-projection.
The underlying menace of the first movement made itself known from the off, a climax of fearsome power on the brass subsiding to a barely audible murmur on violas, Eschenbach’s conducting barely above waist height. Even before this the uneasy tension at the heart of the movement had made itself known, the composer’s tonal ambiguity was exploited to the full. The Scherzo was extremely well judged, the cellos singing out their opening theme and the horns countering with full-bodied outbursts. The contrast offered by the trio wasn’t entirely welcome, on one hand because of the restlessness of Bruckner’s tonality, but also to Eschenbach’s slow tempo.
As the fourth movement swept in the message of intent could not have been clearer, and here once again Eschenbach found many rewards, the horn-playing fabulous as the theme reoccurred. And then there was true light in the form of C major, the music pointed inexorably to its wide-eyed conclusion. A special night indeed.