THERE HAVE BEEN several unusually interesting recordings of Bruckner symphonies lately, but none quite so striking as the new one of No. 8 in C Minor, performed by the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Carlos Psita in a digitally recorded two-disc set (Lodia LOD 783/784; cassettes LOC 783/784).
Paita, who has inspired something like a cult following with his recordings, cannot be familiar to many Americans from in-person performances. He conducted the Houston Symphony Orchestra in January 1979, and in October 1981 he made his Washington debut conducting the National Symphony in four memorable performances of the Mahler Ninth. Using tempos a little slower than those of Mahler's disciple Bruno Walter, but not nearly so deliberate as those of some latter-day interpreters, he drew an exceptional level of commitment and downright magnificent playing from the NSO. He continues to be known here primarily as a recording conductor, though, and therein, as we used to say, hangs a tale.
When Paita became dissatisfied with the sonic focus of Decca/London's "Phase 4" series, in which his recordings were issued from 1968 to 1978, his backers bought all the master tapes and formed their own company, Lodia, on which label the recordings were reissued after being re-edited and remixed under Paita's supervision. On the same label is a new series of digital recordings, which was initiated with the National Philharmonic, the British capital's famous recording orchestra. Still not satisfied, Paita formed his own orchestra in London, called the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, with which he has given concerts in that city, Paris and Geneva, in addition to the recording sessions which produced this stunning Bruckner set and the similarly notable Dvora'k Seventh (Lodia LOD 782).
In the Bruckner, Paita follows the edition of Robert Haas, as Bernard Haitink did in his recent digital remake for Philips--but he keeps things moving along at a pace that makes for greater flow without in any way seeming hasty. He takes about three minutes off Haitink's timing for each of the four movements, and yet there is all the expansiveness the most devoted Brucknerian could want. What one will not find here is the sort of ceremonial or self-consciously "devotional" approach that so understandably encourages listeners to regard Bruckner's symphonies as museum pieces rather than viable musical experiences.
(That is not to suggest, by any means, that Haitink is guilty of ceremonializing. His new Eighth is a fine one in its own right, but outclassed, I think, by Karajan's analog recording on DG as well as by the new Paita. Haitink's digital remake of the Ninth, on Philips 6514.191, is on a similarly high level.)
From the initial phrase of the opening movement under Paita, there is an undercurrent of tension that ensures a convincing life-pulse for the performance about to unfold. Pacing and phrasing throughout the sequence seem as natural as breathing. While each phrase is lovingly shaped, the molding is done without impeding momentum or getting in the way of Bruckner's spacious designs. There is no conspicuous shifting of gears, as in so many Bruckner performances from other sources; Paita understands the virtue of setting a sane basic pace and holding to it.
The playing itself is glorious. This is no "pick-up" orchestra in the usual commercial sense, but one hand-picked from London's outstanding players, and they have been molded into a magnificent ensemble, the sort of orchestra that can justly revel in its own brilliance while sharing the insights of an inspired conductor.
Bruckner-lovers who value the master's greatest symphony enough to want more than a single recording of it will not want to give up the treasurable ones by Karajan, Szell, Schuricht, Horenstein or Guenter Wand, but this new one under Carlos Paita must surely go to the head of this impressive list, for its outstanding excellence in every respect--performance, interpretation, sound quality and the choice of text. As for those who do not regard themselves as Bruckner-lovers, exposure to this recording is likely to change all that.