Friday, January 20, 2017

Bruckner Rocks Carnegie

As those who have endured my opinionated rants on rock music have known for a long time, I maintain a slightly fanatical loyalty to artists, groups and albums that I considered underappreciated by mainstream opinion. Near the top of my list of all time favorites come rock bands that may be nearly unheard of (e.g., Nektar), or well-known for a few pop singles but unrecognized as the top notch artists I think they are (The Fixx, 10cc). The same goes for my take on individual albums, singer-songwriters, etc.

It is not much different when it comes to classical music. For example, being a violinist, I keep a mental list of violin concerti that I know well and often play recordings of, but which are all but completely neglected by touring violinists. It saddens and sometimes infuriates me to see the repertoire of concert pieces narrowed to a handful of big name composers (the canon would be Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Bruch and Sibelius) with maybe another small handful occasionally thrown in to be "adventurous" (every once in a while someone decides to haul out a concerto by Elgar, Shostakovich or Bartok). It's not the place for it, but I could probably name 20 other concerti that are fully worthy of frequent concert performance. At least in New York - and outside Europe there are few better places from which to observe - not one of them is played even once a decade.

The feeling of great historical-aesthetic injustice extends to other parts of the classical music canon as well. In particular, since my teens I have felt such a deep connection to the music of Anton Bruckner that it seems we must have shared a soul at some point. (As well as a name.) I own multiple recordings of most of his symphonies, the Te Deum, other choral works and even some of his chamber music. Sadly, for whatever reason, the classical music world does not have the same affection for Bruckner that I do. Not that recordings of Bruckner's music are hard to come by; he has had his champions, for sure. But performances are rare. I have managed to catch a performance of the 3rd Symphony (Masur, NY Phil) and the 6th (can't recall who) and I believe, though I can't remember the exact occasion, that I have heard his two most popular symphonies, the 4th and the 7th, at some point or other. But entire seasons of most major U.S. orchestras can go by without a single Bruckner performance.

The worst of the situation is that two of his greatest symphonies, the 1st and the 9th, are hardly ever played; and of these, the 1st is the more sorely neglected. It has been said that Bruckner was the first composer to take up the challenge of Beethoven's 9th. Perhaps that is an exaggeration - there were many romantic composers before him who helped expand the vocabulary of romanticism. More apt would be the statement that he was the first to take up in symphonic form what Wagner and Liszt had created through the opera and the tone poem. In any case, in his first symphony (completed in 1866) you hear for the first time the new vocabulary of high romanticism melded with the formal structure of the romantic symphony.

For me it is like the sounds come directly from the earth itself: deep, awe-inspiring, complex, hauntingly beautiful - in a word, sublime. Once, travelling by car through the hills of Austria, I felt like I was surrounded by a Bruckner score. If nature could speak, it seemed, it would be singing Bruckner.

There have been few greater advocates of Bruckner than Daniel Barenboim, and last night he began the first (almost) complete Bruckner symphony cycle in my lifetime, at Carnegie Hall. Each of the symphonies except the 8th is to be preceded by a performance of a Mozart piano concerto, played and conducted by Barenboim. I will not tell you what I spent on the ticket, but having no love for that hall with its extreme ticket prices, I will mention that I spent about an extra $30 for a "keyboard side" seat on the left, only to find that the keyboard was placed parallel to the stage. Shameful bilking of music lovers in that place. But back to the concert.

Barenboim paired the first "official" Bruckner symphony with the last Mozart piano concerto. The latter, unlike the last Mozart Symphony (for example) is a quieter and more subtle piece than many of the earlier ones. Barenboim was entirely equal to its silky textures and delicate phrasing, giving a performance that was as masterful and nuanced as it was understated. It is hard to imagine a better one, and the audience responded by calling him back for several bows.

How interesting, then, that he gave the Bruckner every bit of gusto and power that it deserved, pulling off, with the help of the top notch musicians of the Staatskapelle Berlin, a performance that did all it could to make amends for the years of neglect  this symphony has endured in New York. The opening of the first movement (which surely must have inspired the opening of Mahler's much more famous 6th Symphony) progresses from gracefulness to raw power in just a few bars. By the time we hear it again in the recapitulation an entire world of new sonorities has unfolded. The delicate second movement was brought off perfectly, no small task given the individual refined contributions needed from so many members of the orchestra. 

But the real fireworks in this piece come in the Scherzo, which all but lifts you out of your chair and makes you want to pump your fist in the air like some catapulting performance by a Seattle grunge band. This would be the first of numerous Bruckner Scherzos that follow a similar pattern, but it is clear that he has already perfected the form. It is tough for the last movement to live up to this level of energy, but Barenboim took no prisoners. While the rest of the performance seemed to be inspired by the early Jochum recording in sonority and tempo, here Barenboim led the orchestra on a frenzied chase that did as much as possible to keep the energy up right through the dramatic close.

The audience on its feet, conductor and orchestra were kept standing and bowing for quite some time, with individual kudos to the horns and the outstanding timpanist (the program lists two, Torsten Shönfeld and Dominic Oelze) until a no doubt exhausted Barenboim, age 74, smiled and waved what was clearly "goodbye".

The series continues tonight with the 2nd symphony, the only one I can't say I know very well. I am  bit disappointed they are not going to do the so called "nullified" symphony, known as Symphony #0; this excellent early symphony was officially withdrawn by Bruckner after harsh critical commentary, but the man was notoriously thin-skinned and obsessed with perfecting and revising what were already brilliant works, so there is no good reason to think withdrawing it was a good artistic decision. If harsh critical reviews were always to be respected we probably would not have a good chunk of today's standard repertoire.

I hope I can find a way to get back for more of the series. Perhaps for the equally sublime 9th. But already a major gap in my listening experience has been filled.

It could be a great week, in spite of today's scheduled political event, which once again brings us from the sublime back to the ridiculous.

No comments: