Monday, July 2, 2012

DVD review of Bruckner 8 (Steinberg, BSO, 1962)

Bruckner, Symphony No. 8

Boston Symphony Orchestra, conduced by William Steinberg

ICA Classics DVD ICAD 5071

William Steinberg conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in this performance of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony on January 9, 1962 while he was music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. He subsequently served as music director in Boston from 1969 – 1972, but his recorded legacy is primarily with the Pittsburgh Symphony, recording with Capitol Records. (Bargain-hunters should note that a 20-CD collection of Steinberg recordings with the Pittsburgh Symphony is currently retailing at around $2 per disc at an online retailer near you.) This DVD comes from a concert televised by WGBH, Boston’s public television station.

Perhaps due to broadcasting constraints, Steinberg makes cuts of his own in the 1892 Bruckner/Schalk edition, primarily in the finale but also in the Adagio (which come in at 17’10” and 20’42” respectively). The cuts are not individually obtrusive, if one is not following with a score, but they do add up over the course of the final two movements so that by the end this listener at least was left feeling a little short-changed.
Curiously the first movement sounded the least convincing. I found it a rather flat performance, lacking in dynamic contrast both emotionally and acoustically. The scherzo carried more conviction and Steinberg and the BSO really came into their own in the Adagio, where the strange mismatch between the tenor of the music and the conductor’s body language disappeared. The finale was played with gusto, but over far too quickly.

Symphonic music does not always benefit from being filmed. Facial expressions don’t always enhance musical understanding, and 50 year old TV broadcasts have their own quality issues, with occasional flickers and blurs in focus. There is also a more subtle hidden cost in this case from the camerawork. The shots are predominantly close-ups, focusing on the individuals or instrumental groupings that are thematically prominent at a given moment (apart from a somewhat surreal superimposition of Steinberg on an orchestral background in the finale). This creates a claustrophobic effect very much at odds with the vast expanses of Bruckner’s symphonic landscape.

This DVD is interesting as a historical document and has some musical high points, particularly in the Scherzo and Adagio. But it is not a satisfying performance overall and it would ne hard to recommend to those without a special interest in the conductor or the orchestra.