United States Bruckner: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (Conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 12.1.2012 (SSM)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1887/1890; ed Nowak, 1955)
Poor Bruckner: unappreciated until his final years, and even then facing constant barbs from critics and bewilderment from conductors. The intended conductor of the premiere of the Eighth Symphony bowed out, admitting that he found the work incomprehensible. The influential reviewer and Bruckner’s (as well as Wagner’s) perennial nemesis, Eduard Hanslick, called the Eighth Symphony “interesting in detail but strange as a whole and even repugnant.” He went on to say that “the listener is simply crushed under the sheer weight and monotony of this interminable lamentation.” More than a hundred years later, comments like those still abound: friends and colleagues find it incomprehensible that anyone would voluntarily sit through well over an hour of “dismal long-windedness” (Hanslick again).
No one finds it strange if a gathering of Mahlerians make a pilgrimage to Mahler’s birthplace, yet Brucknerians who do the same are looked on as eccentric bumpkins: words used to describe the composer himself. In addition to complaints about the insufferable length of Bruckner’s symphonies are the cavils about his endless repetitions, yet Schubert’s D major piano sonata which has over sixty iterations of the opening six chords is considered a masterpiece. Philip Glass’s compositions are nearly synonymous with the word repetition, yet his music is continually in demand. Perhaps Bruckner would not have been as poorly received today if he had died at thirty-one or had driven a taxi before becoming a great composer. Many composers are odd in some way: Gesualdo, murderering his wife and her lover; Beethoven living with chamber pots all about; or Scriabin writing music that would hasten and serve as the accompaniment to the end of the world. By comparison, Bruckner was merely a rustic rube or an idiot savant.
We’re lucky that so many conductors have gone beyond these prejudices and been captured by the beauty of Bruckner’s symphonies. Eugen Jochum, Gunter Wand, Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Sergiu Celibidache, just to name some conductors from the recent past, were all great Brucknerians. Zubin Mehta has talked about breaking down in tears upon his first hearing of the Adagio of the Eighth Symphony.
At this performance, Mehta’s usual conducting style was somewhat constricted. There was hesitancy in his gesturing to the sections of the orchestra which dampened and dulled some of the moments when sharp accents were needed. The monumental crescendos at their highest peaks were at times a bit too jagged and raw. Some brief woodwind solos were buried by the strings, but the strings did a fine job sustaining the symphony’s underlying pulse, mainly through long stretches of tremolos. There was no lack of technical confidence on the part of the instrumentalists (aside from a few rough spots from the horns), and the orchestra seemed both passionate about the music and committed to their one-time leader. It was clear that Mehta too felt a strong affinity with the musicians. Conducting without a score, he literally had nothing between himself, the music and the players. In contrast with Alan Gilbert’s performance of the Second Symphony, there was no question that Mehta understood how the correct shaping of each element is like fitting a piece in a huge puzzle. The completed puzzle revealed the monumental spirituality of Bruckner’s last completed symphony.