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Bruckner’s Boa (Second Opinion)

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Anton Bruckner is a difficult composer and, in a way, an acquired taste. Brahms called Bruckner’s symphonies “boa-constrictors”. Bruckner wrote them with such a sense of vastness and in a time scale so extended and at times seemingly suspended, that the listener needs very large ears to take it all in. They are almost impossible to grasp on first hearing. The symphonies can seem like elephantine meanderings that make Mahler look like a model of concision. Mahler gives you more to fix your attention on in the moment, in case you miss the big picture. Bruckner—not so often. If your attention flags, you are lost. These features made Bruckner’s symphonies very controversial. To one person who informed him that his symphonies were too long, Bruckner retorted, “No sir, you are too short.” Most of us are.

See also: A Survey of Bruckner Cycles | Bruckner: The Divine and the Beautiful

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.8,
G.Wand / BPh

On Thursday night, June 12, 2014, the National Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach, essayed Bruckner’s biggest boa constrictor, Symphony No.8, at the Kennedy Center. If this nearly hour-and-a-half work is not kept tightly coiled, it can unravel in a mess. This has nothing to do with speed, but with maintaining inner tension. Let it go and the work can degenerate into stop/start music. Bruckner’s famous pauses will not then be, in composer Robert Simpson’s phrase “the open spaces in the cathedral”, but dead space. I wondered if Eschenbach could keep this monster in his grip. I recall being completely taken by his performance of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony in February of 2012. (ionarts review here.) At that time I wrote, that Eschenbach “never surrendered the long line in the music to the abundant beauty”, but the following October I wrote that he did the opposite with the Bruckner Seventh. (See ionarts review.) He surrendered to the beauty, and let the long line slacken in an extended performance of some 75 minutes. If Eschenbach has a fault, it is that he can occasionally be too expressive for the good of the music’s structure. With this 50-50 scorecard, I was not sure what to expect in this gargantuan piece.

In fact, the performance was a great success. If anything, one might have thought there was a bit too much tension and edginess at the very beginning of the opening Allegro. It certainly caught my attention. But Eschenbach neither drove this music too hard nor let it limp in its lovelier moments. Inner tension was maintained, and the sense of buildup and release was tremendous. The architectural lines were always kept clear, even in the most decorative moments. The scherzo was gripping and the adagio mesmerizing. The finale was staggering; one heard here the music of the spheres, the tread of the transcendent.

The playing of the NSO captured the finesse as well as the fury of this music, with only a couple of smudges—inevitable in a work of this extraordinary magnitude. The orchestra has only performed this work once before, back in 1983, but it did it tonight as if to the manner born. With such outstanding playing, it is hard to single out individuals or sections, but one must remark upon the magnificent playing of the four Wagner tubas. In fact, entire the brass section was excellent, but so were the winds, and the strings, and the harpist, and the timpanist…

Neither Eschenbach nor the NSO are “too short” for Bruckner. This performance was a rebuke to anyone who might think the Eighth Symphony is too long. With a performance like this, I wish it had never ended. I must not neglect to also mention the brief Four Motets, which opened the program and were given a lovely performance by the University of Maryland Chamber Singers.

The program will be repeated again tonight (June 14th).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Um... did you mean to the MANOR born?