“At the time of this concert in May 1970 there were just three recordings of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony in the catalogue; now there are more than 50, and counting. This performance is that rare thing, an intensely dramatic Bruckner Eighth. It isn't often that you hear an account of the turbulent first movement as thrilling as this. The jagged downward slashes of the trumpets are terrible to experience, yet the space that opens up after the vast and glorious E flat cadence 40 bars later is the very reverse, a way to heaven even from the gates of hell. The odd stumble in the brass, the occasional cough are immaterial. This isn't a performance for those who measure out their life in coffee spoons. The Scherzo is ferociously quick with a Trio of compensating loftiness.
The loftiness returns in the Adagio which Barbirolli again projects urgently and with a full heart. Plaintive winds, trenchant brass, and speaking strings, full-bodied and emotionally intent, build the heaven on earth that Bruckner envisions. To hear why this is great musicmaking, listen to the coda and the gloriously articulated long string recitative that underpins it. The finale, too, is fairly gripping, though there's a brief tired patch midway.
The Festival Hall's fierce acoustic suits the performance well and the engineering is spectacular for its day. Barbirolli was mortally ill when this concert took place. He died just 10 weeks later. 'This might be the old man's last, so let's make it a good one,' the players were saying at the time. By all accounts, Karajan's last live Bruckner Eighth was a lofty, out-of-life experience.
Barbirolli's is the very opposite, a case of 'Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.' It's a one-off, eloquent beyond measure: the boldest, bravest Bruckner Eighth on record.”