And Then the Earth Shook and Trembled: Rattle, the BPO and Bruckner’s Ninth

February 27, 2012

United StatesUnited States A. Bruckner: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York 24.2.2012 (SSM)

Bruckner -Symphony No. 9 in D Minor with the US premiere of the final movement. Performance version by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca (1983 – 2011)

Carnegie Hall has been both blessed and cursed. The main concert hall, officially the Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman Stage, is considered to be ideal acoustically. Unfortunately, it sometimes suffers from being right next to a subway station. There were moments in this concert when one thought a train had made a wrong turn and ended up in the hall: the floor shook as far back as our seats in row W, but the vibrations came from the stage, not the subway.

The performance revealed an image of Bruckner far from that of the country bumpkin who had childish ambitions of being the next “B” in the pantheon of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He is still seen by some as the idiot savant who built pointless crescendo after crescendo only to have nothing at the crescendi’s peaks: a musical Sisyphus never quite reaching his goal. As to the caveats about his old-fashioned style of composing, which looked backward and not forward, one only had to hear Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to ask if there has ever been a Scherzo more tragic and less Scherzo-like, or an Adagio more poignant and at the same time more apocalyptic. If Bruckner’s life-long quest was be the next Beethoven and to write a ninth symphony on the level of Beethoven’s Ninth, in this monumental work he was not far from his mentor’s own masterpiece.

Only rarely is there an interpretation that makes us want to reexamine a composer’s works in a particular genre or even his entire output. In our time one thinks of Glen Gould and his icononoclastic reinterpretation of J. S. Bach’s keyboard music, Leonard Bernstein’s revival of Mahler or Sir Thomas Beecham’s “rediscovery” of Delius. Here, from  the ab initio (or should we say de profundis?) tremolos played pianissimo to the final three pizzicati of the third movement Adagio, the audience was held spellbound. Any orchestra under any conductor can play loudly, but few can inject such raw terror into each sonic burst that it becomes almost too painful to hear.

Working with one of the great orchestras of the world, Herbert von Karajan built the BPO into a successful but tightly controlled group prepared to succeed in any environment. Rattle has deconstructed this model and rebuilt it in a different fashion. Every member played as if they were in a chamber music group. The violins swayed with abandonment that couldn’t be imagined in von Karajan’s day. Conducting the entire work without a score, including the recently completed fourth movement, Rattle made gestures here and there but never imposed himself on the instrumentalists.

It seems only fair to suspend critical judgment on the US premiere of the reconstructed fourth movement. Started in 1983, first performed in 1991 but still considered a work in progress until 2010, this finale deserves to be heard several more times before it’s reviewed. Unquestionably, it has the Bruckner signature sound, the grand crescendos, the prominence of the brass. Whether it matches Bruckner’s other final movements and creates a conclusion that feels right remains a question. This premiere has generated much excitement and expectation, so mentioning the opinion of a detractor might add some balance. This is particularly important as it comes from one of the great Bruckner conductors, George Tintner: “It is not meant cruelly when I say that I for one am glad that Fate did not grant him his wish [to complete the symphony before he died]…for the Finale is unworthy of what is perhaps Bruckner’s greatest music… The various efforts of brilliant scholars who have recently made performing version of Bruckner’s Finale will be of entirely historical interest.”

Frequently today part of a music critic’s comments focus on how rude the audiences are. The sold-out audience for this concert was exemplary: barely a rustle, cough or “ahem.” It was ninety minutes of Bruckner, and the reception bodes well: the time may have finally arrived to place him on a pedestal next to Mahler.

Stan Metzger

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