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The Original Face of Bruckner

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
11/09/2009 -  
Philip Glass: Violin Concerto No. 1
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major (“Romantic)

Renaud Capuçon (Violin)
Bruckner Orchester Linz, D. R. Davies (Chief Conductor)

D. R. Davies (© A. Balon)

The “Mahler-Bruckner Society” was all the rage when I was growing up, but few composers had more dissimilar aims.

Gustav Mahler was the Pantheist supreme, his music dedicated to the spirit of trees, squirrels, Fate, Destiny, the souls of dead children, rustic funerals, drunken poets, and the universe in general. Anton Bruckner confined his creations for a beatific Father. He was probably imagined on a Golden Throne in the fifth row center, waiting for music in His honor. Especially did He enjoy French horns introducing His Eminence, brasses blazing out His glory, thundering timpani pounding out His Power and string chorales singing out stuff which seraphim and cherubim could hum for an eternity or so.

The eponymous 200-year-old orchestra from Linz, Austria did mighty credit to Bruckner’s most popular symphony last night, but it wasn’t the Fourth symphony which we know so well. Instead, Dennis Russell Davies presented the rare original score of a work which has been changed around countless times (a Bruckner trademark). The first two movements were basically the same, but the familiar scherzo was totally changed, and the finale retained only traces of the wondrous chorale-fuelled last movement which came in later editions.

Still, one must credit the other surprise of the evening, Dennis Russell Davies, for his interesting ideas. Dennis Russell Davies rarely conducts in New York, but is greatly in demand by most European orchestras for good reason. He has far-ranging eclectic tastes, especially in American music. He gave the world premiere of Glass’s Kepler earlier this year, and will be conducting the American premiere at BAM in ten days. He is a Haydn specialist, has introduced music by Henze and Bolcom, and of course, as the Music Director of the Bruckner Orchestra, he certainly knows his late Romantic music well.

He has the kind of orchestra which probably does the most beautiful Schubert. True, the strings are a bit rougher than the NY Phil, but this was hardly distracting for a piece where the brass was shining, the French horn solos in the first and third movement were stentorian (give credit to Robert Schnepps), and the whole ensemble gave a performance both fluid and thrilling.

I use “fluid” with reservations, since Bruckner’s inspiration would take off into the heavens, and then stop for a deep breath. But those moments of benedictions, amens, and glorias were so marvelously written that one would never worry about such picayune matters.

We expected all this in great Bruckner. Unexpected was the third movement (no longer a scherzo but a “very fast” movement). The oft-played trumpet call was changed to a French horn solo repeated about eight times, swith a sing-and wind middle section like an awkward Schubert tune.

The finale was also changed, but not for the better. We still have the brass going down in octaves as a motif. But missing is the grandest of all chorales which Bruckner composed for the later versions. Without that stringed hosanna in the highest, one could have felt deprived. But in the balance, such a good Austrian sound and such energetic conducting made the entire symphony worthwhile–and worth buying a recording of this rare interpretation.

The opening was another composer who isn’t afraid to use tonics and dominants. But Philip Glass plays around with his chords so ingeniously that any comparison would be odious. The work is elegiac, charming, sometimes even moving. I doubt if any violinist could take liberties with such strict notes, and Renaud Capuçon, performing on a Guarneri which once belonged to Isaac Stern, gave a suitably lean performance.

As for Ohio-born, Juilliard-trained conductor Davies, he must return here more and more often. Yes, it will be good watching him in Kepler, but the Maaestro should resist the bright lights of Linz and Stuttgart, so that he can grace our own humble but welcoming island.

Harry Rolnick



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