Two E-flat Symphonies: A Study in Contrasts

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Bruckner: The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor), Stern/Perelman Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 26.1.2016. (SSM)

Haydn: Symphony No. 103 in E-flat Major, “Drumroll”
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, “Romantic”

The works in this performance do have a commonality, but more in theory than in actual practice. They share an E-flat Major key and the traditional four movements of fast, slow, minuet (Scherzo) and a quick finale. The Haydn is the penultimate “London” symphony, as well as the penultimate of his 104 symphonies. It’s only recently that his earlier, and in many ways more interesting, symphonies have come into their own. These earlier works, starting with the “Morning,” “Noon” and “Night” (6, 7, 8) through the “Sturm und Drang” (40s-50s), were daring and experimental. There are occasionally performances of some of the named symphonies (“Bear,” “Hunt,” “Chicken”) or works that have a story behind them, such as the “Farewell” symphony where the players leave as each of the orchestral section parts ends. The later symphonies tend to be tighter structurally but also less daring. It was these late pieces that made it easy to tag Haydn with a “Papa” appellation as a stodgy purveyor of straitlaced music.

With the arrival of the early music movement, specialist groups wanted to rethink Haydn performance practice in terms both of the size of the orchestra and the sounds of the instruments. Now that many of the assumptions of the early music movement have been absorbed by most conductors, we don’t have to feel judgmental when a standard orchestra plays a Haydn symphony. Adjustments can be made in terms of changing orchestral section size. Although not all the string players here were consistently vibrato-less, the concertmaster, David Lee, was and set an example of how music of this time should be played.

Nézet-Séguin had barely reached the podium when a brief booming sound came from the stage. I thought maybe the timpanist was still tuning his drums, or perhaps the notorious rumblings that have plagued the hall from the adjacent subway had finally reached their limit. But then the conductor feigned surprise, smiled and continued with the performance. I was doubly surprised, knowing that Haydn had marked the tremolo pp.

It’s nothing new to speak of how unusual Bruckner’s music is and how strongly listeners either love him or hate him. Most who “understand” him also understand why others don’t. Like so many influential artists, he forces you to approach his music in a new and different way, and it is a difficult way. Unlike Mahler, to whom he is often compared, Bruckner’s thematic motifs come to the forefront and then just fade away as quickly as they appear. Sometimes they show up again later, but themes are never developed as in the traditional sonata form. The overall construction of his symphonies, within each movement and between movements, often feels unbalanced and incomplete. Yet in many ways Bruckner’s musical genius was ahead of its time, still working within the tonal system but using that system to suspend tonal resolution: blocks of notes rise from soft to loud, then at the critical moments dissolve instead of resolve. This leaves the listener unsatisfied but hungry for more, until the movement or symphony is resolved by a true cadence. It’s like riding a wave, satisfied with the current wave but always expecting the next one.

When Bruckner is played the way he should be played, there are moments of sheer beauty. The music shimmers and glistens. It is a yearning for something not easy to define, something that goes beyond the bold unresolved crescendos. At this performance, Nézet-Séguin dampened and dulled  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 leader.

Stan Metzger

For a second opinion, please see Bernard Jacobson’s review.

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