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Splendid Regency

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/13/2004 -  
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 5
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

“Beginning with the Fifth the character of his harmony and polyphony no longer varies, though (to be sure) it is
sufficiently rich and inspired to require no change…
The tongues of both had, like that of Isaiah, been touched
and consecrated by the fiery coal of the altar of the Lord
and the threefold "Sanctus" of the seraphim was the inmost meaning of their message.”

Bruno Walter, Bruckner and Mahler

The citizens of Boston and Philadelphia were extremely fortunate over the past few years to have as their principal conductors two of the most thoughtful, senior maestros still active today. Bernard Haitink not only lent an air of dignity to the BSO when it rather sloppily jettisoned Seiji Ozawa, but graciously agreed to stay on indefinitely until a new music director could be engaged. Wolfgang Sawallisch took over from the very popular Riccardo Muti in Philadelphia and, because of his advanced age, many perceived him as but a competent major domo, granting the orchestra’s board a comfortable interregnum during which they could entice a major prince to ascend to the throne (they opted instead for Eschenbach). But Sawallisch, like the current Holy Father, lasted a lot longer than most would have predicted and, in the process, presided over the most magnificent era on Broad Street since that of Stokowski (sorry, Ormandy fans). His powerfully measured and thoughtful approach to the classics and his entire season of twentieth century music revitalized the ensemble and thrilled audiences both at home and here at Carnegie Hall. Now conductor emeritus, Sawallisch returns one more time with a masterpiece by one of his signature composers.

The Symphony # 5 is Bruckner’s “Classical” Symphony (as the 4th is Mahler’s). The second (slow) and third (fast) movements have the same first 31 notes and the finale interweaves themes from all of the other three movements in a great organ-like synthesis. Movements 1, 2 and 4 all begin pizzicato. It is the first of the God symphonies, the devout Upper Austrian weaving tapestries designed to reveal the Creator’s gloriously interconnecting complexities. One does not hurry one’s communications with the infinite.

It was apparent from the outset that this was to be a mature reading of this rich score, guided by a long lifetime of experience. Sawallisch now belongs to that select company of great Bruckner conductors: Furtwaengler, Horenstein, Klemperer, Walter, and even Celibadache, although that’s a whole ‘nother story. The shape and pace of this performance were masterful, the leader allowing the slowly developing themes to breathe deeply and develop organically. The famous Philadelphia strings did not disappoint: the unfolding of the second subject in the second movement was as opulent and invested as any listener could ever expect from human interpreters. Except for some fussiness in the episodic finale, this reading was interpretively wonderful.

However impressive the communicative qualities of this rendition, its execution was only fair. More often than not, the non-stringed sections of the ensemble let their compatriots down. The high brass was out of tune right from the start, creating some dissonances in the tutti sections not even admissible in the organ loft. Throughout, the wind play was sloppy, nakedly exposed in some quiet, concertante passages, and the horns struggled all through the night. Some inevitable loss of intonation haunted the fourth movement, wherein the loud parts (and there are many) sounded forced and strained, brittle and ragged. Even the normally highly praised strings had a bit of an off night, approaching the three pizzicato introductions more as a horde than as a group (the effect was reminiscent of the third of the Webern Five Movements for String Orchestra in its wildness). If this was indeed Wolfgang Sawallisch’s valedictory, a bit more concentration and discipline from his players would have been much appreciated.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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