Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bruckner and Adams: Matters of Life, Death, and Art with the Cleveland Symphony

To begin this post, a confession: I usually feel that in the symphonic repertoire, a little late Romanticism goes a long way, and sometimes have sighed over the fact that there really isn't any such thing as "a little" late Romanticism. But I went to the two last concerts in the Cleveland Symphony's Lincoln Center stay, because I do like the Cleveland Symphony, I really like John Adams, and with student prices, I thought I ought to give Bruckner a try with one of his greatest advocates leading the interpretation. With as passionate an expert as Franz Welser-Möst on the podium, Bruckner not only held my interest, but left me intellectually stimulated and emotionally overwhelmed.

Saturday night's concert was devoted entirely to Bruckner's eighth symphony.  The orchestra used the 1887 Nowak version of the score, which brought the work to about an hour and half in length (cf. remark about no such thing as a little late Romanticism.)  It was indeed massive, but no part of it felt extraneous. I struggled for a metaphor to communicate the magnitude of the symphony's impact; it was not a "force of nature," but a force of art. Never did referring to the architecture of a piece seem more apt: this symphony took shape like a temple. Everything seemed under perfect control, but there was not an ounce of hesitancy or undue restraint. This was a performance blessedly free of bombast, so that the real sources of excitement, the shape and color of Bruckner's sound, the skill and subtlety with which he deployed his vast forces, could be better appreciated. Yes, Brucknerian subtlety, Gentle Readers, from the string section that had luscious sound on everything from its delicate pianissimi to fiercely assertive, pulsing forte, and from the woodwinds which shaped expressive solo lines, and blended beautifully as well. The glorious brass section could not be called subtle, perhaps, but they were as finely responsive. Welser-Möst led with fierce, fearless energy and precise control. I couldn't help but think of the connection Pythagoras saw between mathematics and music: behind these sounds lay the rules of the world.

What I'm tempted to call the gravitas of the Cleveland Orchestra's particular sound--full, rich, weighty, and well-blended--served John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony well.  Hearing it in between Bruckner symphonies did, I suspect, help me listen for its sweep, and interpret the anguish at its heart as that of trying to cling to certainties in a world where morality is being perilously redefined. Beneath the tense cacophony of the laboratory you can hear a heartbeat in the strings. Here as in the Bruckner, I appreciated Welser-Möst's feel for detail and attention to lyric line. The momentum of the piece was relentless, its pizzicati and shivering runs in the strings chilling. The trumpet solo for "Batter My Heart" which appears at the conclusion of the final movement (taken, I presume, by principal Michael Sachs) brought me to tears. Once the piece had faded into silence (I appreciated Welser-Möst's upheld hand at the end) the audience responded enthusiastically, and got on its feet when John Adams came out for the second ovation.

And then the ninth. I'm fairly certain I detected an allusion to Rilke's "Archaischer Torso Apollos" in Thomas May's program notes; whether deliberate or not, it's an apt comparison for this unfinished symphony that nevertheless--at least in this reading--overwhelmed me with its scope, as well as its force. The program seemed anxious to defend Bruckner from being dismissed as simple expressions of religious faith, and his work from facile comparisons to cathedrals. I'm not sure it's possible to have a simple expression of religious faith; just look at Bach. And as a medievalist, I thought that, even if hackneyed, a comparison of Bruckner's Ninth to a cathedral might be very fitting. In the high Middle Ages, cathedrals were designed to tell the history of the world. They foretold its future. They drew communities together, and helped them express their identities. They depicted, celebrated, and strengthened, the bonds of the living with the dead, whether the departed were the saints whose relics healed and were adored, or the known dead under the flagstones. Their windows transformed light into color, and told stories in which the miraculous invaded the ordinary. In other words: Welser-Möst and the orchestra found nuances of color and dynamics that made the vast whole seem almost delicate, at times (lace tracery carved in stone.) The tempi may have been on the deliberate side--I apologize for my lack of comparative sense--but the whole was given with such energy, and agile liveliness from the strings, especially, that I never felt it dragged. Welser-Möst created generous silences between movements which worked as part of the structure as a whole. Back to Pythagoras: did you know, Gentle Readers, that medieval philosophy saw all of space as filled with light and music, and the perfection of paradise as expressed through mathematically ordered hierarchies? This was like that, and like the terror of chaos expressed in the nightmare-devils on friezes. The sound not only filled the hall, but stormed the heavens.


  1. John Adams just posted on his Facebook that it was a "humbling experience to share the bill with Bruckner 9".

  2. @DTO Well, they were both soul-stirring pieces. Personally I think the directness of the Adams helped me hear some of the same qualities in the Bruckner, which I might otherwise have missed. I stand by the gushiness of this post, but remain rather astonished by the whole experience, as I am not usually drawn in by Bruckner (feel guilty about this in view of concerts' excellence and Welser-Möst's profound enthusiasm, but there it is!)

  3. When I saw that Lucy was reviewing a Bruckner symphony the first thing I thought of, naturally, was cathedrals. The allusion to a "Temple" in the review of the 8th made me think that she was avoiding the hackneyed metaphor on purpose and while I appreciated her discretion I was somewhat disappointed that she did not proffer her views on the subject. I was therefore quite relieved to see it broached later and pleased that she took the opportunity to consider the subject and was especially gratified that she did so with in such a comprehensive, informative, sophisticated and apposite manner.

    Anyway, these concerts sound quite interesting indeed and quite a treat, especially in view of the fairly sparse menu on offer in New York in the summer.

    Incidentally, you're right about there being no such thing as a "Little Late Romanticism", but you really appreciate the 8th and 9th (and 7th) after (suffering through - this is supposed to be stricken but the HTML tag doesn't work) experiencing the 2nd, 3rd and 5th.

    On a somewhat related topic (religion-influenced music) in ... err ... a less than concise format, I had the chance to hear Saint Francis in Munich a couple of weeks ago. Some fascinating and compelling music and a rare opportunity but consistent greatness it wasn't and the 5 hour length makes one appreciate Bruckner's brevity.

  4. @marcillac Hi! Lovely to hear from you as always; thanks for your kind words. The concerts were quite a treat; I wish I could have made it to more of the Adams/Bruckner pairings, but I'll look forward to what the Cleveland Orchestra brings us next year. It's been ages since I've listened to Bruckner's earlier symphonies, I'm afraid, but these last two really were stunning.

    I hadn't realized, or had forgotten, that Saint Francis was so long! A great opportunity to avail oneself of, but 5 hours of Messiaen is a somewhat overwhelming thought.

  5. Gar nichts Frau Doctorin Professorin Lucy. Cleveland this season especially unmissable b.c. die Stemme singing Salome (unfortunately it looks like I might have to miss it).

  6. @marcillac Thanks for the news - I found on the Cleveland Orchestra's website that they'll be bringing Salome to Carnegie Hall, as well: My only excuse for overlooking this in the season brochure is that it's buried in the "Great American Orchestras" series. Fingers crossed for scheduling!


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