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Ionarts-at-Large: Haitink in Bruckner, Ozawa not in Bruckner

With all due respect to Maestro Mariss Jansons (interview on WETA) who I much admire, it is a very good idea for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to have guest conductors take on the Anton Bruckner duties.

The nervously micromanaging, detail-oriented Jansons has so far delivered Brucknerlive and on record—of awkwardly hollow excellence that does nothing to my Bruckner-love. Christian Thielemann, the Bruckner-reveler across town, is a wholly different story… and so is Bernard Haitink. Superficially he is a conductor similar to Jansons (understatement, subtle musicality, unhurried introspection rather than flashy extroversion), but his Bruckner feels (more than ‘sounds’) completely different: Jansons’ uncomfortable, an exercise in theory; Haitink’s totally natural and organic. That’s not to say Jansons’ Bruckner should be ignored (his Seventh on BR Klassik is good), only that it helps to lower one’s expectations. No need to lower one’s expectations for Haitink’s Bruckner. In February he took the baton and led the BRSO in the Fifth Symphony, the great Fifth.

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A.Bruckner, Sy.7,
M.Jansons / BRSO
BR Klassik

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Sy.5 + Lecture,
B.Zander / Philharmonia

Perhaps Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is overshadowed in ‘greatness’ by the Eighth, in popularity by the Fourth, in catchiness by the Seventh, portentousness by the unfinished Ninth… heck, it is even overshadowed in underratedness—by the Sixth. But surely it isn’t as neglected as Benjamin Zander suggests in the commentary of his recent recording on Telarc. Only because he hadn’t performed, nor apparently much thought about, the work, doesn’t mean the rest of the conducting- and listening-world has ignored it, too. ArkivMusic lists 63 available copies—about 50 different versions—as currently available. Not the sign of particular neglect. (Zander’s recording, by the way, is a veryfine, refreshingly straightforward account—even if his fearfully excited, 80 minute commentary teeters dangerously close to a clichéd embarrassment.)

Haitink’s direction is unfussy: small gestures and his soft-yet-intense eyes steer the orchestra safely and precisely. Players of the Concertgebouw and BRSO speak admiringly of how little he needs to say in rehearsal, because his motions make intuitive sense to the musicians. Together with the BRSO’s clarity and detail the performance made for a Bruckner that simply felt right. Without highlights or pointed local flavor or exclamation marks, this was moving Bruckner-calm and impressive Bruckner-excitement—and none of the nervous, jerky push-pull of one aborted climax that denotes bad, ill-steered Bruckner. Altogether a lovely night and a performance that reminded me why the Fifth is my favorite Bruckner Symphony.

BRSO-Bruckner was supposed to continue the following week, when Seiji Ozawa was scheduled to conduct the Third (the “Wagner” Symphony). But unfortunately Maestro Ozawa was diagnosed with esophageal cancer (Tim Smith reported, among others) and has canceled half a season’s worth of engagements to make sure he’ll be fully recovered and fit upon his projected return later this year. Also scheduled was the Frank MartinConcerto for Seven Winds, Percussion & Strings” and because seven soloists—even if they are members of the orchestra—can’t easily be re-scheduled (or disappointed), a conductor had to be found whose schedule allowed him to fill in, and whose repertoire included the Martin. Compromises had to be made, which unfortunately didn’t just mean that Bruckner had to be dropped, replaced with a Mozart Symphony and “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

Cornelius Meister, the 30 year old GMD from Heidelberg, was available but despite the promising name, he conducted more like an apprentice. He managed to be fairly close in sync with the orchestra while ostentatiously waving about during the Mozart Symphony No.29 in A major (KV201), but it wasn’t clear whether that was entirely pro forma or if it had any actual effect on the routinely lovely performance. The tempo—this touch of Meister was evident—was a very brisk one, and the first violins adhered to it. The rest caught up later.

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Wolfadeus Mozart, Sys.#29, 31, 32, 35, 36,
C.Mackerras / Scottish CO

The symphony itself is worth a few words, since it is Mozart’s first exclamation mark in that genre. It was still composed for the Salzburg court, and the limited orchestration of strings with two oboes and horns reflects that. But the content was bolder, bigger—and Mozart thought the work fit to be played in one of his Vienna academy concerts some nine years after the 1774 composition date. The first and last, among four equally weighted, movements are linked by the distinctive downward octave leaps—nearly as bold as he’d later make them in the Cosí fan tutte overture. Just before this concert I received the latest Mozart offering from Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on the audiophile Linn label: Too high a bar for the Meister-led BRSO to pass that day. Mackerras’ combination of light touch and making his chamber-sized forces exude a bold, even fat sound—rounded off with the innate musicality of one of the foremost Mozartean conductors of our time: the symphony and indeed the whole 2-CD set that also includes Symphonies nos. 31 (“Paris”), 32, 35 (“Haffner”), and 36 (“Linz”) is a charming and subtle triumph.

That’s not to say that the BRSO’s performance was all bad. One touch stood out in particular: In the Andante the strings—especially the first violins, which were more on top of things than their colleagues—achieved a wonderfully glassy, almost synthetic yet light and glowing string sound. The result of using wooden dampers, I was told.

Frank Martin’s concerto—literally and metaphorically at the center of this concert (and exactly as old as the orchestra)—was the reason I attended, and it was the clear highlight. Meister was busy keeping the beat, the orchestra was together, and the soloists, all culled from the superbly skilled first chairs of the orchestra did their instruments—flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion—proud. How to better showcase you orchestra’s talent than with a work like this: From the fabulous flutist Henrik Wiese (Pahud has nothing on this guy) to the Bloomington-native horn doyen Eric Terwilliger and the ridiculously young and talented Ramón Ortega Quero (in 2008, at the age of 20 and shortly after his sweep at the 2007 ARD Music Competition, he became the BRSO’s principal
oboist), all participated flawlessly in Martin’s perfectly natural interweaving of the soloist voices.

The only nag is that the work isn’t great Martin. In rather obviously not being so, it shows how very skilled a composer Martin was, as the real quality of composers shows best in their ‘less-than-great’ works. The treatment of the instruments, the professional progression from movement to movement all speaks to his craft. But inspiration came to Martin specifically when composing with a religious subtext in mind. Polyptique enjoys that obvious inspiration while this concerto is rather like music without expression, a concerto-grosso against treacly over-emoting.

The concluding Pictures was civilized boredom; a perfunctory performance of varying tempos that didn’t convince at either extremes, and devoid of the necessary expressive nuance. With every passing minute I more and more appreciated the piano version. Bruckner was missed, as was Ozawa. Get better, maestro—we can’t do without you, yet.


Anonymous said...

What is with the world and all of the misspellings and punctuation errors in respectable publications? The NYTimes spelled Kauai as "Kawaii" yesterday, People Magazine can no longer use an apostrophe for a possessive, and my beloved Ionarts writes "principle oboist." I'm off to vomit now.

jfl said...

1.) your spelling oboejections have been noted and l'article incriminé been tended to.
2.) we are more flattered about your attentive reading than the just, if somewhat colorful, rebuke could ever offend us.
3.) you definitely should hold us to the same standards as the NYT. we encourage that.
4.) naturally we cite the spell checker as the principle, err: principal source of our errors.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the correction. Long live Ionarts! (no more need to vomit...)