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More of Eschenbach's Bruckner

available at Amazon
Wagner, Wesendonck-Lieder (arr. Henze), J. Van Nes, Northern Sinfonia, R. Hickox
(Chandos, 1995)

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Symphony No. 7, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, K. Böhm
(Audite, 1977) [64'30"]

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Symphony No. 7, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, B. Haitink
(CSO Resound, 2007) [67'30"]
They can't all be winners. This week's concerts from the National Symphony Orchestra certainly worked on paper: the ensemble's debut of Hans Werner Henze's diaphanous orchestration of Richard Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder paired with the symphony that Bruckner completed in homage to the composer he so greatly admired, Wagner, at the time of the latter's death. The program featured in our picks for October for the choice of contralto soloist, Nathalie Stutzmann (a Christoph Eschenbach favorite last heard here in his performances of Dvořák's Stabat mater), and for the chance to hear more of Eschenbach's unusual but glowing Bruckner. Sadly, while there was much good listening along the way and while rarely heard music is always welcome to these ears, the interpretation heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stood out mostly for its oddness.

The evening's big discovery was the Henze arrangement, made in 1976 for a chamber-sized group of strings, harp, horns, and winds. Wagner composed these five songs on poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, during a time when his infatuation with Mathilde destroyed his first marriage. He set aside his work on the Ring cycle, working out in the songs some of the themes he would use in Tristan und Isolde. Wagner specified only that the songs were written for eine Frauenstimme, and although we have enjoyed them sung by a soprano (most memorably, Christine Brewer), they work well for a low-set voice, too. By almost anyone's standards, Nathalie Stutzmann's voice is not ideal for Wagner, but Henze's transparent scoring, with lots of divisi and low winds (alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon), can accommodate a smaller voice. Stutzmann has mannerisms that will bother some listeners, especially a tendency to hit some notes in straight tone, just a scintilla under pitch, and then warm the sound with vibrato. Still, this was a beautiful, nuanced reading of both text and vocal line that focused more on artistry than real power. The delicate sounds created by Henze -- muted brass, tinges of harp, no violins or basses in the third song, murky fogs in the third and fifth songs -- were scaled beautifully to this intimate performance, likely far too intimate for listeners farther away in this large hall.

Although Eschenbach's Bruckner with the NSO thus far has been admirable -- an eternity-minded ninth in 2012 and a bold sixth in 2010 -- his take on the seventh symphony (E major, WAB 107) was no less strange. The orchestration (an imperial brass section of 4 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba) and many of the motifs are Bruckner's tribute to Wagner. When he began the Adagio movement, Bruckner reportedly had premonitions that the idolized composer he called "the Master" would soon die, a passing that occurred in the middle of Bruckner's composition of the second movement. In response, he extended the Adagio, marking its concluding elegy "In memory of the immortal and dearly beloved Master who has departed this life." At the climax of the Adagio is a disputed cymbal crash and triangle roll, which Bruckner added at the request of his friends Ferdinand Löwe and Josef Schalk, with the acceptance of Arthur Nikisch, who conducted the premiere in Leipzig. Because this percussive accent was added to the score on a little pasted-on slip of paper, some conductors choose not to include it: there is not much of a role for percussion in the symphony overall, and two players to perform this few seconds of music are not otherwise needed in the course of an hour-long work.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, National Symphony’s Eschenbach gives Bruckner a loving, original reading (Washington Post, October 12)
The symphony can work with or without the cymbal crash and triangle roll. The NSO last played this symphony in 2001, but we have reviewed the work with Kurt Masur leading the Orchestre National de France in 2008 and with Günther Herbig and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra the year before that, neither of which included the cymbal crash. Both recordings we revisited this week -- Karl Böhm and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Audite, 1977) and Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO Resound, 2007) -- do have the cymbal crash, as did Eschenbach here. Eschenbach's unusual interpretation was long and drawn out -- well over seventy minutes, up there with the longest recordings -- without adding up to anything massive overall. It was not just that the first movement was perhaps overly grand and solemn, but that the scherzo -- one of the rare instantly memorable movements Bruckner composed -- was disappointingly labored, too plodding for the only movement marked "Sehr schnell," what should be a much-needed moment of lightness. It did not help that the NSO often sounded rough and out of sync, especially in the violins, with the podium and with one another.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (October 12 and 13, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Anonymous said...

Should I stay for the second half of the concert, or go see the Nats game?

Charles T. Downey said...

Well, unless you are a Brucknerian who wants to hear any Bruckner anytime, the Nats game seems a much more epic event.