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Will The Real Universe Please Stand Up?

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
07/16/2011 -  
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (Original 1887 score, edited by Leopold Nowak)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Musical Director and Conductor)

F. Welser-Möst (© Roger Mastroianni)

The Bruckner universe was given a more startling look last night with a performance of the "original" Symphony Number Eight. The universe did include those ugly brown dwarf stars and some atmospheric dust. But under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst, we discovered new quasars, a few planets, several constellations and a whole cosmos not revealed before.

That is, this scribe had not heard the revelations. Unable to get a score of the 1887 symphony (published five years later), knowing only the usual 75-minute editions, I was unsure what to expect.

True, some of the changes were difficult to essay, even from a good seat in Avery Fisher Hall. But others were evident. Much of the brass section–a section which would have done credit, in quantity and quality to John Philip Sousa–had a different timbre. Perhaps horns and trombones were changed, at times the chorales sounded thicker than the usual playing. The ending of the first movement was a major triadicchord, piercingly loud, unlike the tranquil minor-key ending of the revised version. The trio of the scherzo was far different. It was a rustic tune, played with vernal placidity, rather than the faster, mightier revision.

But the main difference was in the length. Not quite the “heavenly” length assigned to Schubert. More the 90-minute length of an original philosophical treatise instead of a compilation of axioms.

The strange thing was that this length, while not always revelatory, while sometimes seemingly discursive, while structurally eccentric, all seemed to make sense by the end.

(Like Terence Mallick’s enigmatic movie, The Tree of Life, much of the content was puzzling, but to this viewer, the end put all the other work in context.)

One positive and one negative. The positive was the lack of other music–specifically a piece by John Adams–to distract from the Bruckner. The negative was an awful typographical error in the program: “There will be one intermission”. “Agggh!” I thought. “Who could possibly cut the Eighth in half, like it was a crumby breadstick?

Nobody, of course. It was an error – and a scary notion.

The most positive of all were the Cleveland Orchestra strings at a level I could not imagine. Specifically the sublime slow movement. Divided into eight parts, these strings made sounds as burnished as the Berlin Philharmonic–which is saying a lot for an American orchestra. While I am firmly in the Mahler camp, this Bruckner Adagio could have been written by the Hungarian Jew rather than the reclusive Austrian Catholic.

(Bruckner himself called it “the finest movement I have ever written.”)

Its symmetry, not exactly translucent in the revised versions, was even more opaque here, with a few measures toward the end which didn’t seem to add much. But that was a small matter, a human error in an otherwise artistic triumph.

Mr. Welser-Möst never relaxed any of the pacing here. The opening was taken a bit slower than a galloping pace, but it rode on without a stop. I always loved the jolting softness of the revised version, but the fortissimo last chords seemed conventionally right.

The scherzo was nice and relaxant, and the new Trio was such an innovation that one saw a different Bruckner. Not Bruckner the spiritual, but Bruckner devoted to stillness and solo hunting horns.

To repeat, Mr. Welser-Möst took that splendid slow movement–now considerably enlarged–with all the nobility, the inner heartbeats and tensions it deserved. No exaggerated retardations at all, simply the notes beautifully played. The finale crescendos were sustained, the soloists were splendid, and the brass–about 20 players in two choirs–gave it the triumphant ending.

What happened after the ending was like the end of a Levine-conducted opera, with curtain call after curtain call, for the conductor, the ensembles, the orchestra as a whole. And as Bruckner’s particular universe faded into memory, all that we listeners could do was go out into the Manhattan evening and look at the full moon and stars as if they were facsimiles of Bruckner’s own.

Harry Rolnick



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