Do you Believe in Bruckner? Ninth Opens Santa Cecilia Season

ItalyItaly Brucker, Ninth Symphony: Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Chorus Master, Ciro Visco, Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano. Bruckner, Symphony no 9 in D minor. Verdi, Four Sacred Pieces. Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome. 13.10.2012 (JB)

Anton Bruckner was a God-fearing fellow; a matter which has troubled his biographers. Those gentleman seem to be disappointed that he was never interviewed by whoever was the Richard Dawkins of his day. And besides, the biographers lament that they fail to find any connection between the man and his music. I think I do. So some explanation is first in order.

Bruckner’s Christianity was rooted in the prophetic tradition. Of the three religions which dominate Western life and thought (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) the oldest of the Abrahamic religions –Judaism- set the prophetic tradition in motion historically and philosophically. A large number of early Christians held Jesus to be in this tradition. Then came Mohammed. Centuries later, William Blake spoke with a prophetic voice, believing himself firmly entrenched in the Christian tradition but often to the dismay and puzzlement of many orthodox Christians. Those early Christians –Gnostics, as they were called- proved an inconvenience when the Church formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. They were thus excommunicated as heretics.

From the Church’s newfound stance (which would prove immensely useful in its development) the Gnostics were indeed heretics. You couldn’t have Jesus as a prophet as well as one of the three Persons of the Trinity. The Greek word gnostic roughly translates as knowledge. The Gnostics were also to make something of a pleasure out of not knowing, though they were not the first to adopt this stance. Socrates got there five centuries before them.

Not knowing very swiftly lands you down the path of agnosticism –another road which the Church condemns as heretical. This is not the kind of agnosticism which Professor Dawkins, recently cornered in a television debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, reluctantly owned up to as the only sustainable scientific position. (You will remember that he had formerly always tried to pass himself off as an atheist.) The gnostics put a much more positive spin on not knowing: it opens up for them ways of knowing which I don’t yet know about. This practice is sometimes misleadingly referred to as mysticism. It is unquestionably the cornerstone of scientific inquiry though some scientists may have trouble understanding that. Gnosticism gave itself a wider berth than scientism.

The Church and its fringes are full of these practising mystics, Meister Eckhardt, Jakob Böhme, William Blake, Carl Gustav Jung, to mention just a few. The prophetic tradition is also attracted by apocalypse. And all these qualities are clearly in evidence in the life and work of Anton Bruckner.

He remained a peasant at heart, socially awkward, full of self-doubt, constantly rewriting his music , even gratefully accepting “corrections” from conductors and composers of his own symphonies. His life and composing were a constant search, necessitating revisiting old scores until they gave out new life. It’s in this spirit that Bruckner’s music begins to open up its mysteries. The listeners too –and certainly the performers- are required to approach it with the same healthful agnosticism.

If you have followed me thus far, you will not be surprised to know that Bruckner never finished his ninth symphony. We have only the first three movements (just a little over an hour’s music). He often suggested that his Te Deum would make an excellent finale. I fancy he would have approved of Antonio Pappano’s choice of the Four Sacred Pieces of Verdi as a finale, which also has the convenience of being useful for the Verdi bicentenary programme which Santa Cecilia will play at their London Prom on 20 July 2013.

The Santa Cecilia Orchestra go from strength to strength. This is largely the result of the excellent relationship they have with their conductor: Antonio Pappano has shown that it doesn’t matter whether or not you have a good stick technique (he doesn’t) but he does, in rehearsal, communicate musical sense and then, at the performance, surprise himself and the players by raising this sense to unimagined levels. Sense has a special meaning when Bruckner is on the stands. Sir Antonio and his band have embraced this. The Santa Cecilia Hall metamorphosized into a Cathedral. The one thousand two hundred congregation were hushed.

And surely that cathedral echo was never present in the hall before? Of course it wasn’t. It’s partly brought about by the composer’s orchestration. But mostly by the players’ responses to that orchestration.

All orchestral sound is made by rubbing, blowing or hitting. Wagner (an acknowledged influence on Bruckner) was the first to properly grasp this. That is why Wagner is so successful in sounding sexy. Both composers require the players to focus on their physical contact with their instruments. But Bruckner goes a step further. He takes the player and the listener through to the other side of sexuality. In this, he is unique. And Sir Tony and his players are supremely dedicated servants in delivering these tricky goods.

The string players in particular, were outstanding. Not individual players. I am aware that the body of string sound has to be made up of individual players, but what produced this Bruckner sound (solemn and mysterious he says for the two outer movements) is the dedicated, corporate listening to one another that gives the effect of chamber music on a colossal scale; solemn and mysterious, indeed.

Riding on these powerful waves of string sound there were also some exquisitely poised wind contributions, notably from Carlo Tamponi and Nicola Protani (flutes), Paolo Pollastri and Anna Rita Argentieri (oboes), Alessando Carbonare and Simone Sirugo (clarinets) and Andrea Zucca (bassoon). Guglielmo Pellarin, the outstanding, young, first horn, held together his section with perfect poise and seeming expressive ease, with four of the horns playing Wagner tubas. Mr Pellarin, at the supper following the concert, told me he has just made a recital disc of all French music. I can never get enough of his horn sound, so a review of that will follow.

The Scherzo which makes up the middle movement has all the apocalyptic blood and thunder of Blake’s prophetic writings, though one of the trios makes for some lighter relief with an enchanting elf’s dance (more delicate string control). The timpanist, Enrico Calini, kept the doom (and sometimes gloom) rolling.

If you are going to find a substitute for Bruckner’s own suggestion of his Te Deum as the finale of the ninth, you could scarcely do better than Verdi’s Four Sacred pieces, which itself ends with a Te Deum. The two men could hardly have been more different, even if there are qualities which unite them. Both retained an earthy, peasant soul throughout their lives and both engaged with religion on their own terms. Verdi expressed his agnosticism (in the sense in which we use the word today) openly, but he responded to the Christian drama from the bottom of his soul. His musings remained well clear of mysticism, unlike Bruckner, though his thought and feeling on matters religious was no less profound. A secular Christianity might best describe his position.

The excellent work of Ciro Visco as Chorus Master of Santa Cecilia is worthy to stand alongside the work of Sir Antonio. This is certainly Italy’s finest chorus. The unaccompanied Ave Maria is a severe test for any chorus; Verdi encountered the so-called enigmatic scale (an interesting mix of mode and scale and major and minor) in 1888 and the exercise in writing for it eventually came out as the Ave Maria. The intonation skills of the chorus are stretched to the maximum. The chorus’s precision in this matter would have put even the finest Oxbridge choirs into the shade: electrifying and moving.

The Stabat Mater was no less polished but the Laudi alle Vergine Maria for unaccompanied women’s voices brought forth an awed silence from the audience. After this, the roar of the somewhat pedestrian Te Deum came as an anti-climax, sounding routine against the inventiveness of the three preceding pieces. But London will certainly take you to their hearts with this exceptional performance, ladies and gentlemen of Santa Cecilia.

Jack Buckley