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“Magnificent” Isn’t Quite the Right Word: Nagano in Bruckner

For better or worse, there is no programming coordination between the Munich orchestras at all. For one, they don’t have to. The crowds attending the various concerts of the Munich Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the ‘Academy Concerts’ of the Bavarian State (Opera) Orchestra (to name just the three big orchestras) are surprisingly distinct. And most of the ones who do attend the concerts of two or all three of these orchestras are liable to be fond of the idea of hearing Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony performed three times by the likes of Kent Nagano, Christian Thielemann, and Franz Welser-Möst (as happened last season.)

In November it was Bruckner’s Ninth that got double billing. First with the BRSO under Bernard Haitink (reviewed here), which was a ‘high-quality so-so’ experience, then with Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Orchestra (November 29th / 30th). As a prelude for the unfinished Bruckner Symphony Nagano chose not the Te Deum (“Te Dium”, as I’ve seen a witty soul remark recently), but Stille & Umkehr (“Silence and Return”), the last orchestral work of Bernd Alois Zimmermann [read Alex Ross’ article on B. A. Zimmermann’s opera, “Die Soldaten”], composed shortly before the depressed composer committed suicide in 1970. It was this combination that convinced me, still flu-stricken, to attend rather than sip more tea at home. The reward was immense.

available at AmazonZimmermann et al., "Who is afraid of 20th Century Music,
I.Metzmacher / Hamburg Philharmonic

available at AmazonA.Bruckner, Symphony No.9,
G.Wand / BPh

The Zimmermann piece creates an unsteady atmosphere, wavering, forces silence, forces attention, and indeed caused a strange feeling, a neat queasiness encompassing much more than just the ears. Snare drum and harp create the steady, coming-and-going blues rhythm (B.A.Z. writes in the score that it is imperative that the percussionist be a “Jazzer”), and around it the small string ensemble constructs a hypnotizing universe out of “D” with sparse, nervous interjections by the large wind and brass sections. B.A.Z. plays with overtones and semitones but always around that note D; the same note, Nagano points out in his brief comment between the two works from which Bruckner creates his cosmos of the Ninth .

The applause after Zimmermann was very modest (Nagano hadn’t explained the programming choice yet), but the effect of Stille & Umkehr had yet to take place… and would. Between that particularly dark prelude, Nagano’s points about Death linking both works, and the interpretation itself, I had never heard Bruckner’s Ninth quite so. Not the opening with such obvious references to Mahler One, Beethoven Nine, Götterdämmerung; nor the whole symphony ever so dry, detailed, soft and unfazed…

Nagano imperceptibly built up a force that eventually unleashed itself upon the listener with unpitying force… unsentimental and gripping to the point of choking the listener. Not all was grim—the viola pizzicatos in the slow movement were downright saucy—but in the end this was otherworldly, overwhelming, with overtones of desolation, isolation... far removed from the cliché of Bruckner, the genial simpleton. “Space Music” is what another critic, similarly enthralled, said afterwards; an apt description of what turned out to be the finest, most intriguing of the “Academy Concerts” I have heard under Nagano.

Picture courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

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