Lincoln Center Festival 2011 – Bruckner (R)evolution

United StatesUnited States Lincoln Center Festival 2011 –  Bruckner (R)evolution : Leila Josefowicz (violin), Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), The Cleveland Orchestra. Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 13-17.7.2011 (BH)

Wednesday, July 13
John Adams
: Guide to Strange Places (2001)
: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major (1878 score, ed. Nowak)

Thursday, July 14
John Adams
: Violin Concerto (1993)
: Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883 score, ed. Nowak)

Saturday, July 16
: Symphony No. 8 in C minor (original 1887 version)

Sunday, July 17
John Adams
: Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007)
: Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1896)

Is Franz Welser-Möst the world’s greatest living Bruckner conductor? That was one of many thoughts that ran through my mind during Bruckner (R)evolution, four concerts with the distinguished Austrian maestro and the Cleveland Orchestra as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. With interpretations favoring leaner, more transparent textures, phrasing that persuaded with its plain-spokenness – all fused with some spectacularly great work from the Cleveland musicians – I felt like the question at least needed to be asked.

Welser-Möst ‘s thesis – or one of them – is that Anton Bruckner can be counted as a forerunner of the world’s minimalists, and therefore paired each symphony with a shrewdly chosen work by John Adams. But Bruckner’s minimal elements combine with large-scale late-Romantic structures, and some often astonishingly unusual harmonic flights and chord progressions. Adams, too, is hardly “just” a minimalist, tempting as this characterization may be. These concerts may have shown the Adams inherent in Bruckner, but they also revealed something of the Bruckner in Adams. Just when Bruckner seems to have settled into a third or fourth reiteration of a motif, an abrupt chord change takes us elsewhere; the tiny cells that make up the Eighth Symphony are subjected to all kinds of variations in the course of its massive evolution. John Adams’s Violin Concerto, his oldest work in this mini-festival, goes beyond mere oscillation, especially as blazingly delivered by Leila Josefowicz. As Eric Sellen wrote in his excellent notes, “Romantic Adams and minimalist Bruckner. Or vice versa. From such ideas music connects one generation to the next.”

Individually, the concerts only seemed to get better, but make no mistake: on night one, the astonishing Bruckner Fifth Symphony, with its massive double-fugue final movement, set the bar extremely high. From an impossibly quiet opening, Welser-Möst conjured up a constant sense of depth – of massive imagery with both background and foreground – while simultaneously creating a sense of procession, as if gliding past doors whose curtains were abruptly jerked open to reveal spacious vistas (or in some instances, other doors). The turbulent Adams Guide to Strange Places that preceded it seemed an amiable companion, with its shimmering movement and dramatic brass episodes. The composer – the living one, that is – was on hand, as he was all three occasions, to accept a huge audience response, with many on their feet.

Bruckner’s Seventh, perhaps the most serene and cogent of the four, nevertheless gives hints of the towering intensity that appear in the Eighth and the Ninth, with woodwinds peeking through like exposed electrical wiring. The tone generated by the ensemble – even in the sometimes exasperating acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall – was never less than luminous, with an enveloping warmth. Despite the gentleness, muscularity was always present.

Perhaps the climax came on Saturday night, when Welser-Möst unfurled the original 1887 version of the Eighth, with many differences from the more familiar Robert Haas edition. (I grew up on recordings by Bernard Haitink and Herbert von Karajan, both of whom used the Haas.) But after hearing the original, where does one put it in one’s memory? It is like discovering you have a long-lost sibling whom you have to get to know – one that makes you re-evaluate your roots all over again. Of countless details, most small, the most notable differences are in the first movement, which ends in a triumphant blaze (Haas closes in a whisper), and in the Scherzo, with many phrases extended beyond the Haas revision to the point that the changes feel like clipping a bird’s wings. And in the spellbinding finale, right before the crucial turn to C major, the original contains one last murmuring aside, as if the composer is second-guessing himself before the thundering conclusion. Notably, of the four concerts, this one was the sole outing without an Adams pairing. Given the work’s emotional impact, matched with the Cleveland ensemble’s heroic musicianship, it is hard to imagine what might precede it.

The final afternoon began with a bracing reading of Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, which extracts some of the opera’s most striking material, and in its concision somehow proves (to these ears) even more successful than the complete score. The work ends with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s John Donne aria, “Batter My Heart,” with the vocal line scored for trumpet (Michael Sachs, sounding superb), whose quiet anguish somehow echoes the finale of the Bruckner Ninth that followed. During the overwhelmingly chromatic Ninth (the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony kept surging through my brain), with some of the most transparent playing of all, the orchestra combined humility and strength to create a mysterious, radiant experience that evoked a sublime spirit finally coming to rest.

It is hard to overstate the achievement of this wondrous orchestra and this compelling conductor, who had never before played all four symphonies in such close succession. As an athletic event, it was arresting; as a spiritual one, it is still providing me sustenance weeks later.

Bruce Hodges

(NB: The ensemble has now released DVDs of all four symphonies, Nos. 5, 7, 8 and 9. For the Eighth, taped in Severance Hall, the ensemble uses the 1887 version heard here.)