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Second Thoughts

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/10/2003 -  
Anton Bruckner: Mass # 3, Symphony # 1 (Vienna Version)
Meagan Miller (soprano)
Elizabeth Batton (mezzo)
Richard Clement (tenor)
Kevin Deas (bass)
Concert Chorale of New York
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

Plagued by insecurity all of his life, Anton Bruckner constantly revised his symphonies in the hope of gaining the approval of his critics. His orchestral works went through many editions and a brief history shows how many alterations exist:

1. Symphony #1: Two significantly different versions with several other minor revisions.
2. Symphony #0: Probably originally composed before #1, it was completely revised after the composition of the first and then withdrawn altogether.
3. Symphony #2: Three different versions.
4. Symphony #3: Four different versions as well as a two-piano version fashioned by Mahler and Krzyzanowski while they were students of Bruckner.
5. Symphony #4: Two main versions, one with an entirely new movement, and several minor revisions.
6. Symphony #5: Only minor revisions, perhaps explained by the fact that this symphony was never performed in Bruckner’s lifetime.
7. Symphony #6: No revisions.
8. Symphony #7: Only minor revisions.
9. Symphony #8: Two very different versions; the original sounds like an entirely fresh and new piece of music after having grown up with the more normally performed revision.
10. Symphony #9: No revisions, but it must be remembered that the composer died while still working on this symphony.

This number of incarnations would certainly present a daunting task for a cataloger, but it is only the tip of an Alpine icecap. The trusting composer allowed two Viennese musicologists to prepare the actual versions for publication and these two men, Franz Schalk, director of the Vienna Opera, and Ferdinand Loewe, radically altered these great symphonies before sending them to the printer. Bruckner was a great worshipper of Wagner and in fact had dedicated his Symphony # 3 to this great master. However, during its first revision, Bruckner decided to take out many of the musical references to his spiritual mentor’s works, hoping to placate the anti-Wagner critics led by Eduard Hanslick. Ironically, when Schalk and Loewe got their hands on the scores they endeavored to make them sound more like Wagner, making wholesale cuts in many pieces and changing the instrumentation to reflect the sonic landscape of Bayreuth. So now posterity has inherited the many Bruckner editions as well as the performing versions of Schalk and Loewe.

Enter the International Bruckner Society. Its president in the 1930’s was Robert Haas and he and his associate Alfred Orel made it their mission to try to restore Bruckner’s original intentions (whatever that really meant). The symphonies were now revised again and these revisions are known as the Haas editions. That should certainly have put the Bruckner question to rest, however there was more intrigue to come. With the fall of the Nazi party, Haas was replaced by the more politically acceptable Leopold Nowak who revised the works yet again! The resulting Nowak editions are his personal conceptions of the composer’s original intentions and are prefaced by lengthy and convoluted explanations justifying his particular contribution to Brucknerian scholarship. Most recordings of the Bruckner symphonies identify whether they are Haas, Nowak or original editions and ultimately it becomes a matter of personal taste rather than “authenticity”. Unlike a great painting that can be cleaned to eliminate the centuries of dirt that may have distorted it, there is no final composer-approved version of a Bruckner symphony, as the original is simply one of many that the great man sanctioned at various points in his lifetime.

Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra presented the “Vienna”, version of the Symphony # 1 last evening at Avery Fisher Hall along with the formidable Mass # 3, the finest example of Bruckner’s writing for the liturgical service, a virtually unexplored output outside of Austria. Swimming upstream from the current tide of “original equals better” polemics, Professor Botstein offered significant rethinks of the first versions, crediting the composer with considerable musical sense exclusive of his obsessive self-effacement (unlike his protégé Mahler and his in turn Walter, Bruckner was never a patient of Dr. Freud, although he lived literally right around the corner from him in Vienna-otherwise his penchant for counting the beads on ladies’ dresses might have immortalized him as a case study).

Being granted the honor of offering the premiere of his new mass at the Augustinerkirche (scene of all the royal Hapsburg weddings) afforded the still under-recognized composer an air of instant respectability. He continued throughout the remainder of his life to enjoy the comfortable trappings of academic success, even if he was never enshrined in the creative Pantheon by his contemporaries and colleagues. For many of his generation, the title conferring this respect was paramount (in the only sound recording of his fellow composing genius, the great man introduces himself as Doktor Brahms), but for the naďf Bruckner, secular accolades were trivial at best, surreal at worst (he was once apparently duped into believing that he had been appointed King of Romania!). What mattered rather was his humble relationship with his God, a lifelong passion which culminated in the eloquence of Symphonies 5, 8 and 9.

What struck me about this performance of the Mass was its extreme spirituality. The necessary long pause after the first movement to seat the inevitable latecomers was especially jarring, intrusive in a way which combined the notions of sacrilege not only in its literal meaning but also as a violation of the passionate faith of those of us who hold music as the highest of art forms. The playing of the ASO was quite fine, only an occasional ragged entrance to distract some from the exalted mood. The soloists were unfortunately weak, with an inverse ratio between acceptable volume levels and proper intonation, but the interplay between tenor Richard Clement and both solo violin and viola was delightfully satisfying. The chorus was a bit harsh in spots, but this very lack of refinement contributed to the aroma of brimstone which permeated some of the middle sections. The final Agnus Dei was comforting indeed, putting the lie to the notion that quiet endings cannot be crowd pleasers.

The reading of the symphony was first rate, only the veneer of additional polish of this particular version a bit disconcerting in spots. One of the problems associated with the Bruckner version muddle is that one tends to think of the first scoring that one hears as the “correct” one, and so there were moments in this revelatory performance which jarred my delicate sensibilities and sounded, in my inner ear, like mistakes. But this, of course, is the genius of Botstein: at the end of the day, he is most successful when he makes his audience think, when there is a certain lack of comfort and complacency. This Vienna version was offered not as the preferred alternative, but rather as a legitimate sister. That a rivalry exists between the siblings only adds to the depth of the Brucknerian experience.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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