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Bruckner on DVD: Carlo Maria Giulini in the Eighth

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A. Bruckner, Symphony No.8, C.M. Giulini
More Bruckner on DVD this month: EuroArts, which has already issued the Bruckner Seventh (with Abbado at Lucerne) and Ninth (with Bernstein in his last concert with the Vienna Philharmonic), now issues the 1985 Bruckner Eight under the baton of one of the greatest, if not always most prominent, conductors of the 20th century, Carlo Maria Giulini.

Giulini conducts the “World Philharmonic Orchestra” in its inaugural concert, an artificial body conceived at the UN’s instigation to promote its agenda of “unity, peace, and fraternity to the nations of the world” and the “peaceful coexistence among all men and women”. The mission has clearly and spectacularly failed. Killing one-another is still of paramount importance to too many members of the (really not very exclusive) club of mankind. But the UN and its project should be credited for using high culture as a vehicle for their work. From a strictly musical vantage point it deserves some skepticism, though. The PR effect is likely greater than the musical fruits borne from an orchestra assembled from players – no matter how good – from around the world and playing with each other only once a year. As the Vienna Philharmonic stubbornly continues to prove, homogeneity in an orchestra is a more likely key to success than diversity. After all, an orchestra is to work and react as one to the dictates of the music or conductor.

And indeed, the quality of the playing is not quite at the level that you would find with a regular orchestra on a good day… but it is very good and much better, still, than I had suspected. Two out of tune brass turns in the second and fourth movement and some ensemble work in the third are just about the only bigger points of concern on the side of technical execution. The interpretation is one that drives to gain as much grandeur as the music yields from the Eight, and that, Giulini does very well. Artists that worked under him nicknamed Giulini “St. Sebastian” (the Martyr) because of his pained and otherworldy look of suffering when conducting. Indeed, this exceedingly skinny man (who looks eerily like a transfigured Al Bundy), seems involved into a permanent, silent prayer when conducting: eyes closed, hands sometimes folded together around the baton like he is pleading, lips constantly moving.

The result is committed, very capable Bruckner-playing (Giulini has his name to what is considered one of the best recordings ever made of the Eight), but it also strikes me as “note-playing”. There are intangibles involved in judging a performance that lacks wrong notes and seems to exude emotion but somehow misses the point. These intangibles undoubtedly exist, but the question is whether they determine the response to a performance or broadcast more than the intangible elements on the part of the listener – like the particular mood, the concentration, or the bias he or she brings to it.

The live recording is captured in a slightly grainy, bright, and vividly colored way that oozes that 80’s feel as much as the dress of the prominent audience members and the simple “World Philharmonic Banner” at the back of the Stockholm Konserthus. As such, it is not only a musical performance but a vivid reminder of (popular) culture in the 80’s. I found myself unable to stop thinking how very different the world was, just twenty years ago, and that it is increasingly shocking that I should have been around. When trying to enter Bruckner’s cathedral these are uncomfortable thoughts for me; they might evoke a different kind of nostalgia in others. It does become a time-document because of its particular ‘virtues’, though, and much more vividly so than most other DVD presentations of orchestral performances. Perhaps the value in this issue goes beyond just the Bruckner it offers. (Giulini alone might be worth seeing for many.) It might help, if it were so, because the Bruckner performance alone could surely be bettered.

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