A compelling new work and revelatory Bruckner from François-Xavier Roth and the BPO

GermanyGermany Žuraj, Bruckner: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Philharmonie Berlin, 19.5.2024. (MB)

François-Xavier Roth conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra © Monika Rittershaus

Vito Žuraj – Anemoi
Bruckner – Symphony No.3 in D minor (first version, 1873)

What to do on the evening between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung? Saner souls might take a night off. Yours truly opted for the light relief of heading to the Philharmonie for a new work by Vito Žuraj and Bruckner’s Third Symphony, in performances from the Berlin Philharmonic and François-Xavier Roth. I am glad I did so too, for those performances were splendid, introducing an excellent new work for large orchestra, commissioned by that orchestra, in only its second performance (the first having taken place the night before), alongside a reassessment of a (to me) flawed repertoire work that made more sense of it than any other I have heard.

Žuraj’s Anemoi takes its name and inspiration from the Greek wind gods, children of the dawn goddess Eos and the god of dusk, Astraeus. Over its roughly twenty-five minutes, what is effectively a modern tone poem introduced us to these gods as winds: less, I think, their effect (though we felt that) as the winds themselves. It offered a masterclass in use of every section of the orchestra, various combinations of instruments employed as if this were a concerto for orchestra, or perhaps a concerto grosso, unfurling power all the greater when they came together in a storm, gods at work in their usual battling. It felt almost as if we were the land, receiving due battering — and less often, due benefit (closing raindrops a case in point). Sheer busy-ness of trumpets in one section, multiple uses to which trombones might be put, lyra sounds such as I had never heard from the harp, and evocation of the aulos in the opening, microtonally fracturing unison of oboes, cor anglais included: these and more were impressive in themselves, but more importantly conveyed a narrative of melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, counterpoint, and more. Fantastically assured, it was no mere ‘showpiece’. Roth’s precision and that of the orchestra were, properly, means to an ‘expressive’ end, not ends in themselves.

I had more or less given up on Bruckner’s Third Symphony, whichever version it was presented in. Roth’s direction had me hooked from the truly misterioso opening of the first movement, solo trumpet and strangely translucent orchestra drawing one in. There was certainly all the orchestral depth one could wish for when called for; traditional orchestral ‘choirs’ were likewise present and correct. Nothing, though, was taken for granted. This felt like an exciting exploration, Mendelssohn and even Berlioz (perhaps via Liszt and Bruckner) behind, another world in front. If, sceptic that I partly remain, I do not always find the first movement material especially memorable, harmonically and even melodically, its presentation made good, even logical sense. And if I wished that Bruckner, however anachronistically, might have learned a little from Žuraj’s or even Wagner’s more varied use of brass, there was no doubting the excellence of the playing. A songful meeting of Schubert and Wagner – Tristan und Isolde and Tannhäuser in particular – characterised the second movement, whose compelling performance had me almost forget its occasional melodic awkwardness.

Roth’s tempo for Bruckner’s Scherzo proved a revelation. A faster pace again suggested roots in Mendelssohn. Of course, the latter composer rightly remained some way off; this is hardly fairyland. But kinship was apparent and convincing. The trio’s good humour and grace were welcome; taken like this, there was never a suspicion of lumbering. With that in mind, the proportional tempo adopted for the beginning of the finale made excellent musical and dramatic sense. I confess to having failed – still – to comprehend the logic of where Bruckner takes us next. Perhaps I am still guilty of listening to this too much as if it were Brahms, and of holding it responsible for being something it does not aspire to be. Nonetheless, this excellent performance made me hear the score as never before, even revealing Bruckner who can dance rather than stomp. It also made me all the keener to hear Roth conduct Wagner.

Mark Berry

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