Transcendent Eighth and Defiant Ninth End Historic Bruckner Marathon


Mozart, Bruckner: Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 28-29.1.2017 (BH)

28 January

Bruckner — Symphony No.8 (Haas edition)

29 January

Mozart — Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major K.488
Bruckner — Symphony No.9 in D minor (Nowak edition)

Despite his minimalist tendencies, in Anton Bruckner’s final two symphonies he pushes the envelope, harmonically. For context, interested parties should investigate the composer’s First Symphony (1865-1866), in Georg Tintner’s recording of the original, unedited version—which is pretty strange, at times evoking Schoenberg. It’s worth pondering what the composer might have done if left to his own devices, and hadn’t been edited.

Which brings us to the Eighth and Ninth, the last installments in Daniel Barenboim’s historic cycle at Carnegie Hall. It is worth noting that in each of these nine Bruckner concerts with the Staatskapelle Berlin, Barenboim prefaced the Bruckner symphony with a Mozart morsel—except the Eighth. And the implication was clear: this one needs its own space.

Among the Bruckner Alps, the Eighth is the summit, a small mountain range. (Having deliberately avoided mountainous analogies for the previous symphonies, here it seems appropriate.) All four movements are journeys—peaks of various sizes—on their own, culminating in the finale, in which the tiny thematic cells accumulating along the way finally coalesce and rain down in a transcendent blaze. Here Bruckner combines two traits: his proto-minimalist streak, and his increasing harmonic adventurousness. From a simple, 4-note motif – used in ascending and descending versions in a variety of keys, tempi, and textures – Bruckner conjures up powerful effects, and in the final movement, combines motifs from the previous three movements in an inspired, massive conclusion.

And of the four movements, the Adagio, a half-hour long, is the most sumptuous of all (and the most expansive and sublime of all the composer’s slow movements). It begins with the most delicate of rustlings, but escalates into climax after climax, ever higher, the orchestration changing slightly each time, until the lone cymbal crash finally appears, as if the ascent is high enough to touch the stars.

In marked contrast to the noise-plagued Seventh Symphony on the previous night, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin conjured up appropriate reverence, and the audience was blissfully focused and quiet.

For the final afternoon, Barenboim began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23, and a listener stumbling into the concert would never know that the group had finished eight concerts. Balance and refinement were there, and even the pianist seemed rested. In the opening Allegro, though runs could have been cleaner, the free-floating cadenza was lovely. Matthias Glander, principal clarinet, had a gorgeous stretch in the second movement, suffused with humanity. And with scarcely a pause, Barenboim launched the finale with high spirits—perhaps the closest to a sparkling onstage dinner party of the entire week-and-a-half.

Bruckner’s Ninth is the most harmonically adventurous of all, pointing the way toward the 20th century. Many in the audience were eager for this final concert, broadcast live on, and of course there was the emotional trajectory that came with arriving at the cycle’s end. That said, some friends were not impressed by Barenboim’s reading, so I had the luxury of revisiting the performance on (the performance will be available for viewing into April), and incidentally, with a friend who is not a Bruckner fan, and had not heard any of the cycle. His astonishment, and my re-inflamed memory, confirmed that reading was no accident.

From a somber opening unison, the cavernous opening movement, marked “misterioso,” reconfirmed the near-miraculous stamina of the ensemble. Again, after eight concerts, some fatigue might have been expected — certainly forgiven — but there was none. The group had been alternating between its two stellar timpanists, and this time, Torsten Schönfeld offered strobe-light accuracy, amid a slow-moving caravan of low brass. Barenboim again displayed masterful control over the long line, with unusual patience. Ultra-quiet strings made a deliciously muted backdrop for clarinet and oboe leaping forward. As the movement’s fearsome climax swung into view, it was as if a giant hydra had been awakened into snarling life.

That beast came raging out in the Scherzo: pounding and angry. If there is any of Le sacre in Bruckner, it is here. The barbarism parted momentarily in the Trio, with winds bubbling up as the strings scampered to and fro. But when the initial theme returned, it was even more thunderous and primeval.

An anguished violin line begins the final Adagio — as in the Eighth, one of Bruckner’s most profound creations—and the tireless Staatskapelle strings seemed, if anything, newly inspired. (Or perhaps they realized that the finish line was in sight.) Ever-increasing radiance — evolving with wide dynamic contrasts, and sepulchral groans from the brass and double basses—finally reached the apocalyptic, dissonant chord that appeared like a welder’s torch. In its wake, the ethereal cool-down period felt like a spirit leaving the bonds of gravity into another dimension, again helped by Barenboim’s patience, and the ensemble’s playing.

At the end, during nonstop applause and cheers, Daniel Barenboim slowly made his way through the ranks, shaking hands with every single musician. He spent a good ten minutes — pointedly — walking among the entire orchestra, congratulating, pausing for a word or two. In front of the Carnegie Hall stage, people passed single roses to the conductor, who promptly distributed them to the musicians.

After a Herculean feat — nine concerts in eleven days — completed with startling ease, the players deserved the accolades. It was as moving an ovation as I have ever seen in decades of concert-going.

Bruce Hodges

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