Masterful Sense of Line in Jurowski’s Conducting of Bruckner’s Third

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schnittke, Shostakovich, Bruckner: Natalia Gutman (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall,  London,  27.1.2016. (GD)

ShostakovichCello Concerto No. 2
Bruckner:  Symphony No. 3 (1873 version)

Like many concerts with Jurowski and the LPO this was a most imaginative piece of programming. Schnittke  admired Bruckner and Shostakovich; he dedicated his Symphony No. 2 to ‘St Florian’ and the memory of Bruckner. And the great cellist Natalia Gutman knew and played with the great Russian musicians associated with Shostakovich, like Sviatoslav Richter and Rostropovich, to name just two. But more generally the three works played, although by three very different composers, complemented each other – a kind of Hegelian indentity in opposites. Although the music of Alfred Schnittke was played a lot in the 80s and 90s, he seems to have fallen out of fashion in the 21st century. He was branded a ‘post-modernist’ for his use of parody and irony, although he never claimed to have anything to do with ‘post modernism’. But brand names stick and the demise of ‘post-modernism’, which no-one seemed to be able to define, might have had something to do with this fall from fashion. In Pianissimo he was inspired by a short story of Franz Kafka, ‘The Penal Colony’ He had no interest in writing a programme piece or tone poem. Instead, in a brilliant move,  he converted the story’s process into abstract musical terms.

Like many of Kafka’s storyies and novels ‘The Penal Colony’ is both a metaphor for rationalised modernity, and a stark warning of its more negative effects. It describes  a gruesome form of rationalised punishment. The prisoner is ‘corrected’ by having his own crime inscribed, tattooed on his entire body by a million needles on a machine of unimaginable intricacy. But when the commander proudly demonstrates the machine there is a malfunction which leaves the commander dead with a with a great iron spike through his forehead! The story, half parable, half paradox, is a critical commentary on the dark under-side of technological progress. As Michel Foucault understood well, penal ratonal attempts to reform or correct tend to dehumanise rather than correct, or rehabilitate.

Pianissimo lasting just over 11 minutes is for a large orchestra split up into a gargantuan amount of independent lines. Each line is played as quietly as possible, and each is rigorously controlled by a microscopic serial process. The myriad lines gradually assemble into a huge unison – advanced technology as a means of achieving utopian order – but just  as this unison unites into a single note, things take a terrible turn when order and  rationality catalyse into a horrendous dissonant, explosive cluster. Pianissimo has an affinity with the late, great Boulez’s Livre pour cordes with its myriad intersecting, intermeshing lines and and serial technique.It would be fascinating to hear them played together. Predictably Jurowski and the LPO turned in a totally idiomatic rendition. I would imagine most of the works complexities were covered in rehearsal. Jurowski (the complete opposite of the fashionable rostrum antics conductor) confined his gestures to cueing entries, transitions and sustaining the  many underlying and overlying pulse  registers.

Natalia Gutman has played Shostakovich’s two cello concertos many times to universal acclaim. But I would argue that although her performances of the first more extrovert concerto are  excellent, the more introverted second concerto suits her conversational style more completely. Of course she can project some of the more dramatic aspects of the work (as in the three quasi-cadenza sequences) with great  élan, but in line  with the concerto’s contemplative tone, she played it more in dialogue with the orchestra. Gutman balanced the first movement’s contrasts between the contemplative and haunting main theme for solo cello and the more threatening sharp staccato woodwind interjections with great insight and perception. Throughout Jurowski was in total accord (dialogue) with Gutman. The aforementioned woodwind interjections were well delineated, although Ozawa in his Boston recording with Rostropovich (who premiered the work in 1966) injects more razor edged menace here.  The second movement, with its melody the composer remembered from a popular street ditty Bubliki (translated as ‘Buy My Bread Rolls’), is full of ‘bouncy’ rhythms and ironic effects, sometimes verging on the grotesque tone of some Shostakovich’s scherzos, was played with a total understanding of the way in which humour gives way to something more dark and ominous.  The last movement with its brilliant opening fanfare on two horns, its barcarolle-like undulating accompaniment, contrasting with a backdrop of ‘clockwork’ mechanisms, its juxtapostions between the tonic G minor and myriad remote tonal registers, all seemed to play themselves – the art of interpretation which conceals interpretation! Gutman’s playing of the archaic-sounding  cadential figure, which recurs throughout the extended coda, was deeply moving. The fading clockwork ‘actual’ ending, also used later in the Fifteenth Symphony, sounded commensurate with the ‘lighter’ mood of the finale. But is this ‘lighter’ tone  illusory? As in the Fifteenth Symphony, with its strange toy-shop clockwork rhetoric, perhaps there is something more uncanny (unheimlich) adrift here?  This was overall great Shostakovich!

From the very opening movement of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, to its coda, and indeed the coda of the whole work, Jurowski injected a masterful (impressive) sense of line. Nothing sagged or dragged in a symphony lasting well over an hour. But there was never a sense of the music in a straight-jacket, so to speak. Jurowski knew excactly when to relax and let the music flow, as in the Upper Austrian polka-like themes in the finale.With Jurowski there was an overall and compelling sense of structure and contour, heard in the older generation of Bruckner conductors such as Klemperer, Böhm, Rosbaud, Abendroth, Horenstein, and more recently Georg Tintner, who championed the original editions of Bruckner symphonies, including the  original 1873 version of No 3, heard tonight.

For more personal reasons the magnificence of tonight’s performance was a great relief. I recently attended a performance of Bruckner’s Eighth (Hass edition) in London conducted by a well promoted young conductor, and for me the experience, the performance was dreadful: it literally made me feel ill! I say ‘personal’ here as the love of Bruckner becomes a personal, emotional, even unconsciously driven issue…only a handful of other composers elicit the same kind of identity and love. So, to the 1873 version vis-à-vis the numerous other versions and the question, or genealogy, of Bruckner versions. Basically (and one has to be basic in such a complex discursive field), as one would expect, the 1873 version forms the basis for all subsequent versions. The most favoured version, deployed by conductors such as Jochum, Böhm, Rosbaud, Wand, Karajan, and recently in an impressive performance, again with the LPO, under Skrowaczewski (issued on the orchestra’s own record label), is the 1889 version revised and edited by Nowak. This is the most trimmed-down version coming in at just under an hour. It is an impressive editing job and will appeal more to new-comers to Bruckner. It makes the symphony sound more cogent, economical. Many find that the 1873 version is too repetitive (Bruckner certainly understands ‘instinctively’ the Freudian ‘compulsion to repeat’). So, the 1873 and 1889 versions are the two polar opposites, the 1873 lasting up to 35 minutes longer than the 1889. I would suggest that a good compromise between these two polar opposites is the 1887 version by Fritz Oeser, edited by Nowak, and used by conductors like Horenstein, Kubelik, Harnoncourt and Haitink.  Personally I am coming round more to the 1873 version, especially after reading Tintner’s insightful advocacy of it (which comes with his superb recorded performance), and hearing tonight’s performance. After initially finding the 1873 version too repetitive, too rambling, I came around to realizing that it is these very ‘faults’, the sense of Bruckner over-composing, trying to fit in too much, that are actually the essence of Bruckner. In this sense Bruckner resembles Mussorgsky, full of incredible ideas, but lacking the mastery of form and economy of the great ‘classical’ masters. Also in Bruckner, and Mussorgsky, there is a raw, almost primitive element in the original, think of the earlier versions of Boris Godunov. Like the Novels of William Gaddis, and the films of Jacques Rivette, Bruckner demands great patience, a patience which can be deeply rewarding.

Jurowski started at a quite swift tempo, perhaps missing something of the ‘mystery’ Bruckner asks for. But there was a wonderful structural unity between the initiation of E flat and the famous trumpet motive, and the huge build up to the mid-movement D minor development with its surging chorale climax. The Wagnerian tone was certainly ‘there’ (hence the ‘Wagner’ Symphony); Bruckner submitting the first version of the score to Wagner himself, although there is not much evidence of Wagner’s opinion – or approval! Actually the 1873 version has more Wagner sequences than all the other versions. Jurowski brought a wonderful glow and clarity to  Bruckner’s self- quotations from the F minor Mass, and the Second Symphony.  In the second movement Bruckner obviously intended the ‘Adagio’ as an ‘Adagio’ But he also added his famous ‘Bewegt’ (with movement) as a caution to those conductors who fetishise ‘slow motion’. Jurowski understands this implicitly. In particular, his phrasing was subtle and beautifully contoured with the ebb and flow of the music. He also has a  sense of ‘inner coherence’, especially in the great surging lead up to the noble D major climax, with  allusions to the ‘sleep’ motive from Act III of Die Walküre glowingly intoned -as was the quotation from the second act of Lohengrin ‘Gesegnet sollst Du schreiten’ (‘Blessed shall you strive’). Jurowski achieved a wonderful balance here between woodwind, horns, brass and lower pulsating strings. Indeed I was aware of an overall glowing warmth and depth of tone – something not always associated with the LPO. These deep sonorous tones reminded me of the great Vienna Philharmonic, but this full tonal splendour was stymied by the dry, cavernous acoustic of the Festival Hall. How I would love to hear this performance at the new ‘Phiharmonie’ in Paris, the acoustic of which is rated now as among the best, if not the best, in Europe.

The D minor Scherzo is a cross between the dark menaces of the ‘Walpurgis Nacht’, and the bucolic tones of upper Austrian peasant dance music in the brief trio. Jurowski emphasised the sharp, angry rhythms and cross-rhythms of the scherzo, the brass sounding particularly and powerfully effective. Jurowski gave a nice lilt to the trio’s polka rhythms. All repeats were excluded, as was the extended coda with its repeated  and hammered out tutti rhythms. The finale of the 1873 original is probably the worst in terms of coherence and economy. But Jurowski somehow made it all hang together. In the F sharp major second subject polka, miraculously modulated to include a chorale theme later taken up by the brass, the playing and conducting was absolutely ‘hors concours’.  Jurowski’s subtle rhythmic inflections never sounded heavy or ponderous. The climactic re-statement of the opening trumpet theme now modulated into a triumphant D major for the coda sounded both joyous and resplendent. How sad that at one time this coda was used by the Nazis in vulgarised form as a motive for their propaganda broadcasts. Thankfully, with performances as compelling as the one heard tonight, Bruckner is restored to a rightfully honoured place in a unique tradition.

I keenly look forward to more Bruckner from Jurowski in his current unfolding Bruckner cycle. This performance should be issued on the LPO’s own label. It would make fascinating comparison with the existing CD with Skrowaczewski.

Tonight’s concert was dedicated to the memory of another devoted Bruckner conductor Kurt Masur, the LPO’s Principal Conductor 2000-07 and principal Guest Conductor 1988-92, who died on 19th December 2015, aged 88.

Geoff Diggines

Leave a Comment