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Bruckner 8 @ NSO

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Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, B. Haitink
(RCO, 2005)

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Bruckner, Motets, Choir of St. Bride's Church (London), R. Jones
(Naxos, 1995)
The National Symphony Orchestra is dedicating this week's concerts, the last of this season's subscription series, to the memory of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the ensemble's one-time Principal Guest Conductor, who died earlier this week, after not being able to make it through his last appearance here a couple months ago. Bruckner's eighth symphony, the meat of the program, grasps at ideas of eternity, and the introduction, four of Bruckner's liturgical motets, served beautifully as a memorial to a beloved colleague. This was certainly the first time that Bruckner's motets have been performed on an NSO program, and it is always good to break down the instrumental-vocal divide in classical music, along which those who love singing and those who love playing know next to nothing about the other side.

Bruckner's training as a choirboy and organist, after the death of his father, shaped him as a person and a musician, and listening only to the symphonies, as glorious as they are, gives an incomplete picture of the composer. Bruckner composed motets for liturgical use, almost continuously, between 1835 (Pange lingua) and 1892 (Vexilla regis), as noted by scholar John Williamson: "In the motets written during these fifty-seven years we are presented with a fascinating microcosm of Bruckner's development as a musician, from the first tentative steps to the confident strides of a fully mature composer." In them we see Bruckner drawing from Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and the chromatic harmony he was absorbing from Wagner and other composers. The University of Maryland Chamber Singers, arranged in the chorister seats above the stage, and thus far away from Christoph Eschenbach, gave nuanced and generally fine performances of the four best-known examples of these motets, with well-phrased Latin, equal balances, broad dynamic range, and clean intonation, with the exception of loud textures, where the sopranos were not always in line (although the women were angelic in Ave Maria). Choral conducting is a different animal, and it may have been better to let the group's director, Edward Maclary, conduct this part of the concert, since Eschenbach seemed at times unclear about what he was doing, as in the Alleluia section of Virga Jesse. He tried to cut the choir off a measure early at the end of the "mortem autem crucis" section of Christus factus est, before the final resolution, and the choir wisely just ignored him.

Since taking the helm of the NSO, Christoph Eschenbach has been leading an informal cycle of the Bruckner symphonies, and this performance of the eighth symphony, the only one since the orchestra's first in 1983, is added to those of no. 7, no. 9, and no. 6. It features the largest orchestra Bruckner ever called for, although oddly here there was only one harp instead of the three harps in the score, meaning that the single player had to have a microphone on her instrument and still often was not heard. Eschenbach worked from the Novak edition of the 1890 revision of the score, considered to be more scholarly than the Haas edition, in which the editor put back in some of the sections of music excised by Bruckner. The NSO musicians gave an appropriately vast sound at full bore, with a regal brass section, including the four Wagner tubas, with Eschenbach helping to sculpt some massive crescendi. While the first movement's tempo seemed just about right, with only a slightly unclear beat making the sixteenth-note pickups a little uncertain, Eschenbach's tempo for the scherzo seemed a hair too fast, with an air that was more mischievous than simple-minded. Whatever faith you may put in the programmatic descriptions Bruckner gave for this symphony, the composer's association of the figure of "Der deutsche Michel" with the scherzo says something about what he wanted.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach, NSO offer mammoth but gentle Bruckner in season’s final program (Washington Post, June 13)
The cellos were gorgeous in the third movement, the emotional high point of the symphony, at a luxuriant but not overdone tempo, and the finale opened with an exultant awakening of vast sound, if with occasional ragged ensemble that seemed to show some fatigue on the part of the musicians. Clocking in at about 85 minutes, with timings quite similar to those recorded by Bernard Haitink in his recent recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Eschenbach gave the work a sense of urgency, while allowing the slow movement to expand and breathe as it needed. One of the changes that Bruckner made in the 1890 revision was to alter the coda of the first movement, so that some of its harmonic resolution would be saved for the end of the finale, where finally, the home key is established after 80 minutes of music. Michael Steinberg called this symphony, "among other things, a great study in long-range harmonic evasion," meaning that in the last section of the work, when the overall trajectory, a struggle that ends in triumphant C major, is achieved, should be a revelation and it was.

This concert also marked the departure of seven long-serving NSO musicians, who were given warm ovations. The concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night.

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