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Bruckner: The Javanese Connection

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
06/20/2008 -  
Anton Bruckner: Symphony Number 8 in C Minor
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (Conductor and Music Director)

(© Chris Lee)

Bizarre as it sounds now, the names of Bruckner and Mahler were bound together inextricably when I was growing up. They were both primarily symphonists, they both used huge forces, their works were very very long, and they were both known as "late Romantics".

Mahler won out, though, or less than bizarre reasons.

Mahler’s music was internal, tortured, it shunned the linear lines of earlier composers and went on its own wacky paths. Gustav was the composer who bridged the Age of Freud and the horrors of mechanized military annihilations. Bruckner, the church organist, was equally eccentric in his music, and while the themes were four-square and liturgical, he took loony modulations, stopped and started at strange times. But Bruckner represented another age, the Age of God, and we of the 20th Century knew that God was dead. Ergo, Bruckner’s music would die as well.

No, Bruckner has never died out: his music was too original, too weighty. But the rarity of Bruckner on the New York concert scene is disappointing for two reasons. First, the music is unique, it can be thrilling, and Bruckner’s God was no less dead than Bach’s God. Second, more practically, listening to Bruckner on recordings can be unsatisfactory. No matter how good the recording, no matter how fine the system, it sounds like it was written by an organist for an organ. The winds sounds like treble pipes, the brasses sound like foot-pedals, when the orchestration is heard second-hand it has a mustiness, unlike the shining solos and sardonic music of Mahler.

So when Lorin Maazel essays this very very long symphony of Bruckner on the summer solstice, and Avery Fisher Hall is filled to the rafters, and the audience sits in reverent silence for almost 90 minutes, you know that something especially good is happening.

That goodness was Maestro Maazel. Two weeks ago, he had pulled out the heartstrings of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and, I felt , pulled out its soul as well. With Bruckner’s C Minor Symphony, he approached the music with a straightforward appreciation rather than personal angst. In using the most authoritative score (Bruckner and his followers messed around with the original music for about a century), he was playing with a weightier orchestra, but that weight only spurred Mr. Maazel on to produce a dramatic masterwork.

The Eighth Symphony is dramatic in every movement, without a hint of the jocular or light-hearted. But so stunning beautiful is some of this, and so interesting the structure of those churchly themes that Mr. Maazel’s meticulous non-idiosyncratic performance became a thing of beauty in itself.

Those first two movements (both marked Allegro moderato) he took at moderate speeds. The opening turbulent trumpet calls at the beginning never outdid the glorious heavenly moments which followed. The scherzo never reached Ellysian terpsichorean heights, but its orchestration—virtually plagiarized by Janáèek in the Sinfonietta blazed out on their own, as the theme turned somersaults.

But now we come to the meat of the symphony. Bruckner slow movements can sometimes be a chore, but this, with its emphasis on strings and harps had a beauty to defy description. Bruckner in his score has endless crescendos and decrescendos, and Mahler followed them to the letter. While the horns sometimes made their inevitable flubs, the Phil’s string choir was never more dazzling.

And now a confession. My favorite Asian monument is Indonesia’s 13th Century Borobudor temple in central Java. Here, one walks up a circular set of staircases, beginning with endless legendary figures, then statues of gods,, then to fewer objects, and finally at the top, complete emptiness, the apotheosis of losing one’s human desires to experience the Eternal.

I often felt that the finale of the Eighth Symphony was like that pinnacle in Borobudor. On the surface, we have martial calls and a series of complex themes. But the coalesce into a series of chorales which, perhaps—perhaps!!—Bruckner wanted us to hear our most inner self.

Whether this was true, or whether this simply triggered my own emotions, Lorin Maazel never hammered it out, but let the themes sing for themselves. It was a marvelous finish to Bruckner’s last complete symphony, and the Phil played it with supple, even beneficent grandeur.

Harry Rolnick



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