CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Ionarts-at-Large: Youthful Bruckner With James Gaffigan

James Gaffigan is a young conductor (*1979) with a bright future. Well possibly a future in Munich at some point, where his performances with the Munich Philharmonic have been well received on both sides of the podium. He continued that streak when he was back in town December 16th through the 18th. A neat and clean program comprised Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto played by Sergey Khachatryan and Anton Bruckner’s ‘saucy’ but rarely played Sixth Symphony—my secret favorite of the bunch.

Khachatryan’s take on the concerto left me stranded in a way that reminded me of a wonderful comment by Stefan Vladar over lunch in Salzburg a couple years back. In response to the staid criticism that ‘the soloist lost the long line’ in some concerto, he dead-panned back: “No, actually. I didn’t lose the line. You lost the line. I was just fine myself, thank you.”

Khachatryan probably connected with the music of the Berg concerto, but I didn’t manage to connect along with him. Instead I felt a strange tunnel vision, as though he played notes, steadfastly, rather than trying to communicate a greater image. There was no teasing along those long romantic arches of the work, nor was the performance a study in transparent precision and so I sat in my chair in the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig, a little lost, a little disappointed, and wondering if I might not best blame myself on this occasion. Amid the business of the second movement at least, the sense of strandedness was easier to ignore… the precision, sentimental vacuity, and determination easier to appreciate. And along with Bach entered the air of lyricism I had probably longed for. That a multitude of responsive off-key hearing aids uncomfortably mixed with the ethereal opening didn’t help. The Bach encore made sense, admittedly, and it was a thing of beauty… but sometimes the best option can be silence, i.e. no encore. After the Berg Concerto, that’s an option to consider.

Getting to conduct Bruckner with the Munich Philharmonic, which lives off its Bruckner-tradition like a vine off a dying tree, is a sign of respect from the side of orchestra and management. James Gaffigan got to work on the Sixth, not the most performed, but the loveliest of Bruckner Symphonies. It’s perhaps less “Brucknerian”, which is to say: conforms less to loved stereotypes about the ‘cathedral-of-sound’, slightly lumbering, humbly portentous Bruckner. Our loss, but luckily not that night.

available at Amazon
A.Berg (L.v.Beethoven), Violin Concerto(s),
A.Steinbacher / A.Nelsons / WDR SO

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.6,
B.Haitink / Dresden StaKap

Bruckner at 33 might be considered daring, because very few conductors (never mind listeners) seem very successful with Bruckner when they are young. The spiritual kind of love for Bruckner’s music, the touch for Bruckner’s plain honesty and genius hidden amid simplicity seems to grow over time and then bloom in old age. Perhaps knocking on heaven’s door helps. In any case, the perceived golden age of Bruckner performances and recordings of Herbert Blomstedt, Günter Wand, Sergeiu Celibidache, Herbert von Karajan are suggestive of that; Daniel Barenboim left his brash youthful Chicago Bruckner far behind with his second Berlin Philharmonic traversal; even Boulez found Bruckner in his 70s, Christian Thielemann was born old, and the only notable exception—Giuseppe Sinopoli, whose Bruckner I cherish—is controversial and, ironically, also from fairly close toward the end of his life. All that doesn’t mean that one cannot conduct Bruckner without a gray beard, merely that everything remotely off-kilter will be immediately blamed on youth: It’s meant to make a critic’s life easier.

Expecting grizzled Bruckner-wisdom (whatever exactly that may be) from Gaffigan would be silly. It was very easy, however, to enjoy the might of the first movement and the Munich Philharmonic as a very willing accessory, thrashing about with style at the push of a button. In a perfect world, the principal trumpet would not have had to hang his head low, busily cleaning his instrument from condensation, as if that had been the reason for the slew of infelicities, but in most other respects the performance went off hitchlessly. Brash yes, and certainly entertaining, this Bruckner was a happy conclusion to a concert asking for more of it in the future: More Berg, more Bruckner Sixth, and more Gaffigan that is.