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The Great Schism

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
12/01/1999 -  
Ignaz Bruell: Overture to The Golden Cross
Karl Goldmark: Violin Concerto
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 4 (Loewe version)

Chantal Juillet (violin)
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

It is hard to relate to contemporary audiences the high importance of the Brahms-Wagner feud that developed in Vienna in the 1870ís. For many years to come it was an intellectual requirement in this musical capital to be on one side or the other of this seemingly frivolous debate. Much coffeehouse conversation and fuelleton rhetoric was expended in the service of glorifying either of the two parties to the detriment of their adversaries. The argument consumed much of the intelligentsia of the times and spilled over into the global arenas of politics and racism. Careers were established or ruined based on this arcane polemicism and last nightís concert of the American Symphony was an attempt by its archaeologically minded conductor Leon Botstein to resurrect the environment that nurtured so many of the classics of late nineteenth century music. Entitled Creative Differences: Brucknerís Divided Vienna, the evening offered exotic examples long forgotten of this raging tempest in the teapot of pre-fin-de-siecle culture. As always, the exploration was fascinating and, on this particular night, the performances were exceptional.

Ignaz Bruell, if remembered at all, is known as one of Brahmsí closest personal friends, a young man who energized the Hamburg master and accompanied him on his Herculean walks in the mountains which fueled so much of his mature inspiration. Bruell himself was a prolific but eminently forgettable composer and Botstein turned the tables of the Brahms-Wagner debate last evening by presenting this Brahmsian in his guise as a composer of opera, in this case the Singspiel The Golden Cross. Actually touted by that most ardent member of his camp, the critic Edward Hanslick, as an equal to Wagner himself, Bruell actually composed only light music, more suitable for a village military band than an opera house orchestra. The overture last evening reminded one not of Brahms at all, but actually of his rival, in the throes of Meyerbeerian worship in his opera Rienzi. This was a fun performance, although more at home at a rural Austrian railway station than at Lincoln Center.

Karl Goldmark, on the other hand, is worthy of much more modern attention than he currently enjoys. An ardent Wagnerite (he established the Wagner Society in Vienna), he composed many works of power and subtlety which are now out of favor. Certainly the Rustic Wedding Symphony is a fine work and so, it turns out, is this finger-breaking Violin Concerto. The surprise of the evening was the amazing performance of Chantal Juillet, who specializes in the neglected repertoire surrounding the turn of the century in Vienna. Hers is a confident technique, all of which was required for the Paganinian passages chockablock with notes which seem to spill over off of the printed page. The main theme of the first movement, adapted in our time as the jazz classic Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise, is extremely lyrical and Goldmark works it into many permutations and convolutions which all seem worthy of exploration. I have never heard the American Symphony sound more committed or intense as in their accompaniment to this extremely intelligent and impressive virtuosa rendering.

The story of the many versions of Brucknerís symphonies would fill a rather large volume, so suffice it to say for our purposes that these works were the biggest casualties of the Brahms-Wagner battle. Bruckner, a great admirer of Wagner, even went so far as to dedicate his Symphony # 3 to the great master after first seeking out his blessing. This Januarian work suffered many revisions in the composerís lifetime designed to excise some of the passages which too clearly paid homage to his idol in the hopes that a less political statement would ultimately make Bruckner more popular with the mass of the Viennese concert going public. Coupled with his own low sense of self, this state of feud produced in Bruckner an obsession with constant tinkering with his masterworks and also made him subject to the vagaries of powerful conductors and critics of the era. I remember the personal shock of first hearing the original version of the Eighth Symphony after years of rapture listening to the later Nowak edition. Botstein chose to present the last version of the Fourth, blessed by the composer in his lifetime (except that he often approved of conflicting editions of the same work), but virtually extinct since the revisions of the 1930ís, misguidedly based on purging the "pure" Austrian from the supposed Jewish influences that diluted his rural Teutonic message.

The resulting performance was positively thrilling. From the opening horn calls and the exciting tremolos below this was a reading of extreme beauty and power. I was particularly impressed with the string sectionís intense swirling underneath the lines of the winds and brass and so reflective of the Austrianís love for the third act of Die Walkuere. The lower brass, so vitally important for this powerful music, was extraordinary throughout and it was amazing to reflect on how much power Bruckner could create by using only one set of timpani and a single cymbal crash (later expunged as impure). This was the culmination of Botstein the musical explorer at his best: a wonderful performance of a work which was familiar and yet mysterious in this forgotten incarnation. Last evening was a true Thanksgiving feast for music lovers willing to expand their horizons beyond that tiny corner where most of us usually dwell.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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