When word got out that Pierre Boulez was planning to record the mammoth Eighth Symphony of Anton Bruckner, the reaction in some quarters was akin to the announcement that a leading Marxist intellectual had accepted the CEO position at General Motors. While Boulez has already acclimated the music world to his latter-day interest in the core symphonic repertory with his recent performances of Mahler, the sense of incongruity with Bruckner's mystical solemnity seemed too great a leap to expect from the famous apostle of the avant-garde.
Forget about those prejudices--Boulez's accomplishment here is arguably even more successful than his accounts of Mahler. It also offers a fascinatingly fresh view of the great symphonist, who some feel will finally come into his own in the 21st century. Stereotypes of Boulez's razor-sharp, "cerebral" bias don't do justice to the sensuous pleasure he can elicit from the Vienna Philharmonic's musicians, a detailed alertness to Bruckner's instrumental touches that are too often overshadowed by focus on his architectonics. Boulez, of course, has a command of the latter as well, and his brisk pacing of the Robert Haas compilation/edition creates a sense of momentum and flow that's particularly striking in his brilliant realization of the Scherzo and the Finale.
True, there's less of the "apocalyptic" (an epithet sometimes given to this symphony), of the crushing tragedy, one hears in Karajan's canonical interpretation or the fine version by Skrowaczewski, and Boulez's chary avoidance of pauses in the celestial Adagio cheats us of the near-death-experience-in-music that comes through in Celibidache's glacial but visionary concert recording. But that sense of detail--witness the balance of horns and strings in the Adagio's closing pages--counts for much. Moreover, this live recording gains warmth from the acoustics of the Abbey Church of St. Florian--where Bruckner served as organist, and where his body is buried--and benefits from excellent engineering. Ironic as it might seem, Boulez may indeed win new converts to Bruckner with this performance. --Thomas May