Listening to even a strong performance of Bruckner’s eighth symphony, you get an idea of why so many people find the composer impenetrable. Even, indeed, why they find him a bore.
Its great slabs of sound revolving in sequence, sometimes developing, often building in density and dynamism, often still simply repeating (though with each repeat of course comes a frisson of difference), present an obstinacy of argument that can be hard to reconcile with the expectations we have for nineteenth century symphonic works. Namely, that they finesse through refined proportion and clear dialectical positioning some sort of dramatically appreciable rise or fall. Bruckner is much more exorbitant than that. Excessive, even. (Or, as Eduard Hanslick said of this symphony after hearing its 1892 premiere, ‘repugnant’.) We are teased with the sound world of the high romantic age, yet at the same time we find the work agitating against its inheritance, promiscuously anticipating its musical residue in heavy metal, minimalism, and in the fragmenting symphonism of the twentieth century.
Yet in this lure to romanticism, this temptation in sound, Bruckner founds the heart of his practice. He nurtures a tension of aesthetics by pushing his material and his audiences to their limits, beyond the ken of romantic musical working, overblowing the effect with cleavages in the form and distension in the design. Like Mahler, Bruckner fragments poise and introduces a hypertrophy of thought, yet the overbearing feeling here is not fragmentation, but rather a hardening, a calcification of the material. Great thematic terraces, liquid metal edifices of smelted sound buttressed by headbanging timpani tattoos rotate, imbricating along the way, burnishing to a new intensity of dream by the end of the thirty-minute movements.
The Scherzo, as in so many of Bruckner’s other symphonies, is both the pulsing heart and the rotten core of this piece. Incessant return, revenance by way of parataxis, considers philosophical notions of eternal recurrence, yet couches these in the sensual, diverting attention by way of a shift into duple metre, or a caress in the phrasing as the material is leading inexorably back to the thematic heart, once again, as always.
The timpani player should anchor the whole show with a bravura display of percussive headbanging. The timpani writing in the Scherzo, where you build on one tonality eked out on one of the drums, before shifting stunningly into a more effusive, devastatingly certain bang-patter across the other three, centres the whole thematic argument in a discourse of stable uncertainty. The timpanist’s thumping climaxes at those junctures in the Finale where the isolation of the component thematic parts threaten to rupture into some sort of cataclysm add echo and depth to both the sonic and the dialectical flow of the whole burnished thing. What does it mean to locate the heart of a major, complex, 80-minute work, in the clatter of a timpani player? In this case, I think we can align the image of the sage timpanist deploying precise machination yet banging through the heart of darkness in a rite of frustrated nuance, with the image of Bruckner busy composing this work, too clever and yet too barbaric at the same time for his contemporaries. It all seems a little different now…