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Bruckner, Like You've Never Heard Before

On a night in which Washington offered many fine and desirable concerts, I was where my calling took me, at the Kennedy Center for Bruckner with the NSO. Sir Roger Norrington conducting is always an event, but when he takes on Bruckner, the Brucknerian must fear for the worst. The “worst” in this case being a playing style that conforms (or allegedly conforms) to the way these symphonies were performed during Bruckner’s time. Or, to be more precise: how this particular symphony would have been performed, had it been performed at all, since Norrington opted for the ‘original original’ version of Bruckner’s 4th – the 1874 Nowak edition that did not receive an outing in that form until 1975 with the Munich Philharmonic. There are only a few available recordings of that version, so that even the most Bruckner-versed audience members had never heard the 4th performed this way. (They are López-Cobos on Telarc, D-R. Davies on a brand new Arte Nova, and Inbal on Teldec/Warner/Apex. Ed. Also, by now, Norrington on Hänssler.)

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.4 (1874),
R.Norrington / SWR Stuttgart RSO

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.4 (1874),
D-R.Davies / Bruckner Orchestra Linz
Arte Nova

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.4 (1874),
J.López-Cobos / Cincinnati SO

Even if we find it unthinkable today, Roger Norrington is right in his assertion that neither Mahler nor Bruckner heard their symphonies played with the orchestra playing vibrato throughout. (He put this forward in his New York Times article on February 16th, 2003, titled Time to Rid the Orchestras of the Shakes.) “Worst” also means that Norrington not only writes about rolling back the clock on continuously slower and slower performances of the German heavy romantics (where many equate ‘slow’ with ‘reverent’) but actually does something about it. If someone worships at the Sergiu Celibidache Temple of Bruckner Interpretation, this must all seem like a sacrilege. Even so, we must hear for ourselves. (Aside, Philip Herreweghe’s recording of the 7th symphony was very good, too, and I had been similarly suspicious.)

But before my Bruckner came along, a Schubert 8th “Unfinished” was presented. With patient, astonished bemusement Maestro Norrington watched as droves of latecomers filled the seats of the Concert Hall between the Allegro and the Andante, and he got impromptu applause for being a good sport. Schubert’s truncated symphony is not one of the great ‘unfinished’ works, even though it is the one that most people associate with that title. In his excellent and exhaustive program notes, Richard Freed suggests that the symphony isn’t really unfinished. I’ll agree that it isn’t, but in that case, it’s not a symphony but two splendid, isolated orchestral movements. (As it is, ‘unfinished’ symphonies have the tendency to elicit the idea that they are somehow not ‘unfinished’ at all, which is probably only a late rationalization after hearing it in its incomplete form so many times.) Its popularity is deserved on grounds of the beauty of the two movements, and its recording prominence is helped by its convenient 20 minute length, making it a perfect filler, especially in the LP days. Under Norrington – sans vibrato, of course – the Schubert was lucid, transparent, mostly lean, altogether very nice (in the best sense), and the NSO with the slightly stringent sound of steel-strung strings scratched without vibrato played well, too.

For the Bruckner, Sir Roger opted for a bit more control with the help of a baton. The poor, exposed solo horn that opens the symphony over shimmering strings was taxed a bit too much, but that was soon overcome. What was not overcome, however, was an odd sense of balance in the orchestra, which on one hand had signature parts of the symphony sink into its surroundings and on the other hand unearthed parts that one never consciously hears, though I’ll admit that I don’t know what part of that was due to the playing and conducting or the different version. Much of this was very interesting, like seeing a favorite building from a different angle for the first time. But it was also a building where the parts didn’t quite seem to fit together, as though they were glued together just a bit off, or puzzle pieces forced to fit when they don’t quite. Together with occasional scrawny playing, this may be attributed to too few rehearsals.

Not surprisingly, Norrington blazed through the symphony like a Siberian greyhound with the trees far apart. But even where the playing was no particular joy (it was the first time I have heard concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef play a solo part anything less than stunning), the tempi and the different version were very interesting. The nickname “Romantic” (coming from the revised Scherzo lacking in this version) no longer applied. The Allegro became a real allegro, and those who consider Bruckner the ‘proto-Minimalist’ got plenty of support from Norrington’s interpretation. Repeated string arpeggios and the repetition of short musical phrases to build up force were especially noticeable in the first and fourth movements.

Looking at the actual instructions, one ought not to have been surprised by the brisk second movement. Andante as it may be, it’s also quasi Allegretto. This Bruckner had – little did we know such a thing existed – four fast movements. I am not sure I would have fallen in love with Bruckner if first exposed to him in this form (indeed, my very first concert ever was Bruckner’s 4th in a matinee of the Bavarian State Orchestra – I didn’t quite fall in love with it then, either, as a five-year-old), but returning to this symphony and hearing such a differing take on it was most refreshing, especially where the first movement was concerned. The fast run-up to the movement’s end was smashing and continued even through the terraced dynamics that make continuity so difficult in Bruckner.

The third movement marked Sehr schnell – Trio: Im gleichen Tempo (“Very fast – Trio: At the same speed”) in the 1874 version is completely different from the popular Scherzo. Bewegt – Trio: Nicht zu schnell, keinesfalls schleppend (“Scherzo. Moving – Trio: Not too fast, certainly not dragging”). No one needs to tell Norrington “Sehr schnell” twice... before you do, he’s a third of the way through the movement. The brass had its finest moments here, brisk and pungent. If I had asked myself why we never hear this movement, though, the performance gave the answer. There can’t be a doubt that Bruckner, for all the butchering and misleading advice that well-meaning friends serviced his symphonies with, improved the fourth symphony dramatically from its first to its second version.

The fourth movement, here an Allegro moderato as opposed to the Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (“Finale: Moved, but not too fast”), is a patchy affair and sounded more tedious than glorious, at least in the beginning. After the ‘proto-Minimalism’ rearing its head again, the last three or four minutes were cohesive again and offered a fine end to a concert I feel rather conflicted about. The interest of the performance certainly outweighed the continuous deficiencies of the playing. But the interest for me was hearing a work that I am very familiar with in a version I didn’t know at all. I suppose that most people in the audience had rarely heard the Bruckner fourth before, and I am not sure if they were well served by this decidedly inferior version. I am worried that it may have scared more people off Bruckner than it converted. To those who either know their Bruckner very well or else promise to keep an open mind about it, though, the performance is a must, since it’ll be the only time they’ll likely hear this piece in this version. Performances will take place this afternoon at 1:30 pm and on Saturday at 8 pm.

Read Daniel Ginsberg's review in the Washington Post here.

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