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Ionarts-at-Large: Bruckner-Szymanowski with the Munich Philharmonic

It’s always a pleasure, in principle, to listen to the orchestra of my misspent youth, the Munich Philharmonic. Especially so, when the programming—often on the timid and conservative, occasionally even boring side—is exciting and the conductor one whom I have high expectations of. I last heard Thomas Dausgaard, whose excellent recordings with the Swedish Chamber Orchestras I have long cherished, with the Munich Philharmonic in 2012, which then cajoled me to expound on my concert-program (faux) synesthesia.

The Kurtág-Beethoven-Dvořák program back then was a winner, and so was ultimately the Bruckner-Szymanowski program that enveloped Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater in Bruckner’s Ave Maria (his sacred motet for seven unaccompanied voices and first big composition after finishing his  formal studies in Vienna) and Bruckner’s seldom-performed Second Symphony*: An attractive combination that manages to combine audience-safe familiarity with slightly-off-the-beaten-path beauty.

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K.Szymanowski, Stabat Mater, Harnasie,
E.Gardner /

The opening of the Ave Maria is an interesting show of the primacy of the chorus (Philharmonic Chorus Munich) over the orchestra, which just sits and listens to the short, three-to-four minute work. The unclean entry right off the bat aside, and granting a rather timid, not very confidence-inspiring sound in everything piano/pianissimo, and given the lazy coughing of the audience (apparently flu-season, not that it’s an excuse) it was a fine performance of a work that deserves more fine (and still better) performances. Hopefully before a more appreciative crowd, too.

From the Ave Maria, the orchestra went right into the Stabat Mater, attacca, a cute move that I like seeing used because it breaks the routine of habitual clapping (which only makes programs unduly long) and because it sometimes puts the work in more direct contrast or correlation. Mostly contrast, in this case, because in this performance the hushed pianissimo sounds of the Stabat Mater were rarer than the fortissimo-bursts that sounded as though orchestra, chorus and singers (especially baritone Adam Palka) were about to break out into a performance of Boris Godunov. Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, long in the planning but ultimately inspired by the untimely death of his niece (Berg’s Violin Concerto was similarly inspired a decade later), is a much more sparse, brittle work than the lush romanticism of the earlier The Love Songs of Hafiz, for example, and (aptly, given Szymanowski’s intent) much more Slavic; much less Viennese-romanticism sounding.

Induced by Palka’s singing and those intimations of Boris Godunov, I started wondering: What exactly makes for this unique, specific Slavic timbre in male voices? Is it just the language (Polish in this case, as the Dausgaard eschewed the ‘international’ Latin version of Szymanowski’s work in favor of his, Szymanowski’s, favored original) or the inflection and typical melodies of the music? Both? Or the training of the singers? Palka was in any case part of a vocal trio that struck me as decent if not particularly pleasing. There was Janina Baechle whose round timbre and slightly slurred notes makes for a lascivious, reedy mezzo… effectively projected to make herself heard even before an orchestra that cherished its fortissimo swells. Simona Šaturová jumped in at short notice to save the show; alas I didn’t particularly enjoy the brittle, hard sound or the way her voice and Baechle’s mixed. If I didn’t find this a particularly moving or even

beautiful performance—perhaps Latin would have been a better choice for the overtaxed-sounding chorus?—it might well have been a case of my ears being in unkind mode; other keen ears in the audience had fewer nits to pick.

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A.Bruckner, Symphony No.2,
T.Dausgaard / Swedish CO

Well, give it some effort and another go for Bruckner’s Second after intermission: After all, concert-going and (classical-) music-listening is not just passive entertainment, it’s a bit of work that needs being put in. And a good lesson that is, too, to be reminded of. Writing about a concert isn’t, unfortunately, just an objective report of what happened. There’s much more going on than that. It may help to be aware of it and it can, in any case, be influenced to some degree. Other than this general awareness, I didn’t knowingly do anything for the second half, though—and yet my case of the grumbles was gone for Bruckner, from the first (and especially second) movement on.

Dausgaard didn’t show himself to be a Bruckner-celebrator; this was not an incense-laden performance to add to the cult, but linear, straight Bruckner instead. A friend called it a “Beethoven Symphony”, and he meant it to sting! That wasn’t what I heard at all. Instead I heard lively, merry first violins that were together and who played with momentum and enthusiasm if perhaps lacking that last bit of punchy precision. There was a perky woodwind section on show in the impetuous, bombastic finale of the first movement which was received with a great cannonade of coughs that any applause would have been kind to cover. If this was slightly different from the Bruckner we know and love from the famous symphonies which start only with the Third or maybe even only the Fourth, the subsequent movements taught the audience better: The slow movement (“Solemnly, somewhat animated”) is of rare beauty and stands to be called one of the finest in Bruckner, despite its unassuming, non-monumental nature. The Scherzo, too, is echt-Bruckner from top to bottom, and first-rate at that. Interestingly the movement order had originally been reversed but was never performed that way (Mahler’s Sixth says Hello!)†. The Finale is all Bruckner, also, and massive, with premonitions of the Finales of the Fifth and Eighth symphonies. Pregnant pauses (albeit not the ones that gave the Second its nickname of “Symphony of Pauses”) structure the powerfully climbing and then jauntily finishing work. It seems to have a triumphal sense built into the music—and the orchestra allowed it to come out just right. Something of a highlight among concerts this year.

* Blocks of cool, warmish-blue gray around a pale-golden center, if you care to know about the faux-synesthetic impression the program made on me on paper.

†The Munich Philharmonic performed the 1877 Version of the Symphony (which stands symptomatically for the convoluted edition-state of Bruckner’s Symphonies: two versions, altogether five revisions, and at least four subsequent editions of these), and did so either in the William Carragan or Nowak version (which is the one Dausgaard recorded)… except for the slow movement where the last several bars are from the 1872 Version. As I said: Convoluted.

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