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A Spiritual Awakening

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/02/2009 -  & April 16, 17, 18, 21 (Chicago)
Anton Bruckner: Symphony Number 8 in C minor (Nowak edition)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (Principal Conductor)

Bernard Haitink (© Chris Lee)

Like an astronomer scanning the same galaxy in search of the perfect star, Bernard Haitink has surveyed Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony for six decades, recording it with diverse orchestras, employing various editions, many tempos. During his 80 years, Mr. Haitink has always been looking for that ineffable soul from a composer who was all to anxious to reveal that soul in every measure.

The Bruckner ideal is the non-existent Platonic Ideal. But Mr. Haitink must keep trying, and he offered last night yet another Eighth with an orchestra that may well be close to the best. Not that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a particularly European flavor. It is too flashy, it responds with such alacrity that it sometimes doesn’t seem quite human enough. But where it counts in this 85-minute symphony, it comes through with dash, appealing crescendos, luscious faux-medieval chords in the Largo, making makes Bruckner’s length almost heavenly.

Growing up in America I was subjected to the perversely misnamed “Mahler-Bruckner” societies, though no two could be philosophically more opposed to each other. Mahler was frequently afraid to take his awesome spirituality to its extremes without turning back, without a sharp few notes of “disagreement” or doubt. Anton Bruckner may have had musical doubts (thus the multiple editions), but he knew that his music was for the glory of God. And in a symphony like the Eighth, one never felt anything but the highest spiritual calling. The movements’ hosannas alternated with the rushing hounds of heaven or the glory of a Gothic cathedral. But not a note of doubt ever creeps into his reverent codicil

Whatever Mr. Haitink’s personal beliefs, his reverence for Bruckner made this performance something of a pilgrimage. It could not be easy for a conductor of this age and reported great pain in his back, to conduct this very long work. But unlike his predecessor, Georg Solti, who at the end gave only brief signals to his Chicago musicians, Mr. Haitink’s arms and hands were endlessly vigorous, summoning his orchestral forces ever onward.

Usually, reviewers of Bruckner check the minutes and seconds against other performances. But without either watch or stopwatch, I could only gauge that he took a far more moderate pace here than in the one recording I have. Tempos notwithstanding, Mr. Haitink seemed to base this performance initially, on Bruckner’s sound-worlds. From the archangelic string orchestra with harp figurations in the Largo to the mellow and full-bodied brass (with accents on the Wagner tuba!) to the unexpected flute solos in the finale, this was not the “organist” Bruckner, but a man who, by this last completed symphony, knew his orchestra all too well.

Yet, Mr. Haitink never aimed for effect as such. The dramatic lines were played out in full, the architecture of the movements had that aforesaid Gothic cathedral structure (and obviously a comfortable loft for the composer, and even in that ever rushing finale, Mr. Haitink never let down the guard, for a most triumphal finale.

To those who still don’t accept Bruckner on his own pietistic terms, the Eighth Symphony may be an exhausting experience. For New Yorkers who could temporarily suspend their disbelief of belief, this Haitink performance was like a grand amen.

Harry Rolnick



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