Bruckner Time

Anton Bruckner

Tonight, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin bring the first performance cycle in American history to Carnegie Hall (I’ll be reviewing tonight’s concert, and Symphony Nos. 5 and 9 for the New York Classical Review).

Bruckner is a major symphonic composer, and in the eyes of some the greatest symphonist. That may see a bizarre claim, but that’s because there has been so little exposure to his music here. He has a reputation for being simplistic and dull. I thought that myself, but discovered that had more to do with the interpretations than the composing.

Given the chance to hear knowledgable, committed interpretations, Bruckner’s extraordinary virtues come through: the gorgeous forms that are like great Gothic cathedrals; the enthralling Adagios; the physical vitality of his Scherzos; the superb counterpoint and skill at modulation; the fantastically long melodies; and the transparent and sublime connection to the wonder and terror of his Catholic faith.

But there are aspects of his art that trouble people. Though he was composing in the mid-19th century, he mostly eschews the ideology of the era, development. Bruckner forms his symphonies out of beautifully shaped and intensely dramatic moments, connected by interludes. Then repeat. There’s some nod to sonata form, and he will use the old menuet-trio model, but his sense of form and especially time seems out of place with his tonal language. That is what I love about Bruckner. Coming to him in the late 20th century, he is more like Philip Glass than anyone else (Bruckner was important to Glass), and the last two symphonies are still New Music.

For a way experience the music, look to European musicians and orchestras, who have been playing this music for a century and a half, from the mighty Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics to myriad, regional orchestras. Bruckner is in their ears and hearts.

  • Barenboim has the rare distinction of having recorded three different, complete Bruckner cycles, all of which are at the top level of the Bruckner discography and all of which are worth owning. The pronounced differences come from the three different orchestras; the Chicago Symphony on Deutsche Grammaphon, the Berlin Philharmonic on Warner Classics, and the Staatskapelle on Barenboim’s own Perla label (2016 digital releases) or DG for the CD pressing (which from Amazon gives you a free download). The Chicago recordings are brass to the max, the orchestra’s famous section making a glorious sound throughout; Berlin plays with a much darker sound; and the Staatskapelle has a lithe, earthy sound. Interpretatively, the earliest set is full of thrills, the second cycle is closer in spirit to Fürtwangler, and the latest one has the most natural feeling, as if all the musicians are back in the 19th century, and the music is both new and part of their overall daily culture.
  • Eugene Jochum’s recordings are at the foundation of the Bruckner discography, but I confess here to not enjoying them. They are energetic and sincere, but to me they are superficial and the tempos are always a bit off. With that though, his recordings of the Masses 1 – 3 on Deutsche Grammaphon are marvelous; fluid, earthy, and touching on the mystical. They were formative to my interest in Bruckner, and I consider them an essential part of a good classical music library..
  • Günter Wand was a less well known contemporary of Jochum’s with masterful knowledge of Bruckner, and I prefer his recordings. He produced multiple statements, scattered across several labels, and if you don’t want to search, this bargain reissue is an excellent first choice. Wand’s Bruckner is measured and sane, with a solid large scale form. There is a partial cycle he recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic later in life, and if is tremendous; the orchestra is superior, of course, and there is a palpable feeling of excitement, with the music building to climaxes that are glorious. Listen to that one loud. It is missing Symphonies 1–3 and 6, but everything else is as fine as you’ll ever hear.
  • Bruno Walter is single-handedly responsible for my love for Bruckner. His Columbia recording of Symphony No. 9 was the first Bruckner I listened to, and the profound beauty and metaphysical depths of it convinced me that the composer was worth exploring. It still stands up, from the intensely misterioso e poetico atmosphere of the opening, through the physical might of the Scherzo and the lush internal world of the Adagio. All of Walter’s Bruckner is great—as much as I love his Brahms, and as important as is his Mahler, he sounds most at home with Bruckner. He didn’t record the complete works, but every serious classical music listener should have this collection of his Bruckner and Mahler releases on Columbia.
  • Georg Tintner’s cycle is essential if you find yourself a Bruckner fan. His various orchestras—from Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand, for example—give the music their all, though of course they are not the finest ensembles. But Tintner directs the music with great pace, shape, and sense of meaning, and most importantly he not only includes all the symphonies (including the Study Symphony and the Die Nulte), but also Bruckner’s first complete editions, before the meddling of others. And Bruckner’s first thoughts were wonderful, especially in the 4th and 8th Symphonies.
  • Simone Young/Marek Janowski: two new cycles I picked up last year. Janowski is an old hand at this music, while Young has been making waves with her releases. I have not listened all the way through either of these, but my impressions are that Janowski is very well played and very straight, ideal if you’re not familiar with the work, but perhaps less of interest if you have several sets already. The Young I would recommend unreservedly, it is moving to the very top of the cycles I have heard. I love her pace, which is deliberate in the sense that she has things to say and she’s going to take the time she needs to say them; the tempos are objectively on the slow side but the music making is deep with emotional meaning and is very exciting to hear. Both have superb SACD sound, both clear and glowing. Everyone should get the Young set, wether you’ve heard 1 or 100 before.

Bruckner has been a part of European classical culture since the premieres of his symphonies. One measure of how deep he’s embedded is in how many orchestras that you have never heard of produce terrific Bruckner recordings. Many of these were trapped behind the Iron Curtain for decades, lost to Western ears, but they kept playing, and conductors in the East and West made careers out of traveling around Central Europe and leading a repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner.

  • Cristian Mandeal: His cycle with the Cluj-Napoca Philharmonic is available through Abruckner.com, and there he has also made and excellent recording of Symphony No. 9 with the Hallé
  • Heinz Rögner: He contributes the bulk of recordings (along with Vávlav Neumann, Franz Konwitschny, and Kurt Sanderling) to a fine cycle on the Brilliant Classics budget label from the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin.
  • Volkmar Andreae: An excellent, historic cycle with the Vienna Symphony, taped off radio broadcasts made in Soviet occupied Vienna. Andreae had by 1911 performed all of the Bruckner symphonies, so this is old-school in the best way.
  • Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: A fiery, powerful set, one of the best available with one of the best 9ths put on record, with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern.

If you are interested in sampling individual recordings, there are some fantastic ones, profound and gripping:

Consumer Reports

Looking out for your wallet, once again, so you don’t have to …
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You may have seen [this handsome box set of the Mahler symphonies](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CSDCC8A/ref=ox_sc_sfl_title_1?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER) on Amazon. Think long and hard about it, Mahlerians: Ozawa is underrated in this music and the sound of the Boston Symphony playing Mahler alone makes it worth repeated listening. But don’t be daunted by the price, the same set is already available for less than half the Amazon price at [importCDs.com](http://www.importcds.com/music/2750658/ozawa-symphonies).

(If you do shop at Amazon, remember to use the links you find here on this blog. You help support this site by tossing a tiny amount of the purchase price into my pocket, rather than Jeff Bezos’, at no extra cost to you.)

Also coming out and absolutely essential is the final recording made by Claudio Abbado, leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9. Live in concert, this is one of those rare and extraordinary documents of an event. It’s not just that this is arguably the finest recording of this music, but that the combination of tension, expression, the incredibly focussed playing and the live audience makes this an experience that goes far beyond just listening to music. One of the great things you will have in your culture collection.

PLAYLIST Week 4, 2014

Research Division:

* Schoenberg: [*Pierrot Lunaire, Chamber Symphony No. 1*](http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000MRP1S2/ref=dm_ws_ps_cdp?ie=UTF8&qid=1390852113&s=music&sr=8-3), Anja Silja, Robert Craft, Philharmonia Orchestra
* Schoenberg: [*Chamber Symphony No. 2*](http://www.amazon.com/Schoenberg-Chamber-Symphony-No-2/dp/B0015DM3EM/ref=pd_sim_m_4), Robert Craft, Philharmonia Orchestra
* Berg: [*Pierre Boulez Edition*](http://www.amazon.com/Berg-Pierre-Boulez/dp/B002MXN2A8/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1390852313&sr=1-1&keywords=berg+pierre+boulez)
* Bruckner: [Complete Symphonies](http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Complete-Symphonies-Staatskapelle-Dresden/dp/B00D56ADAS/ref=sr_1_4?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1390852350&sr=1-4&keywords=bruckner+jochum+symphonies), Eugen Jochum, Staatskapelle Dresden

Playlist, Research Edition

Something on my mind that has come from listening to these, and listening to these has put something in my mind. That and my endless, sub rosa obsession with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 7:

A System Of Weights And Measures

Often, that’s what criticism seems like to me. I take a work, look at what it tells me about itself, what it claims are its dimensions and weight, and then I perform my own measurements and compare them to its claims. Successful works meet, or exceed their assertions about their own scope and depth, works that come up short fail in small and large degrees. Occasionally a work exceeds even what it sees in itself, and those are the times when experiencing a work of art is extremely satisfying. I’ve got a large handful of recent CD releases that make various claims about themselves, some of which turn out to be false, others which turn out to be pleasingly modest.

First up is Fresh Piano , a compilation from a collection of composers performed by pianist Peter Gach, which aims high and lands low. This is a dull, weak recording. Although some may find the music enjoyable to listen to, there’s a specific goal to the CD; to survey music of Southern Californian composers and demonstrate their diversity. What’s demonstrated, though, is that their musical and compositional range goes from A to B.

These works are, for the most part, poorly made, technically and aesthetically. Madelyn Byrne’s and Norm Weston’s pieces are poorly organized, with phrases and ideas set next to each other without any effective sense of order and structure (including no purposeful disorder). Ellen Weller’s Jazz Suite has sections that sound like their titles – “Promenade/Funk/Rag” – but the results are stiff, hokey examples of each. Roger Przytulski’s Trinity and William Bradbury’s Chants Music are the most listenable, but they suffer from a commercial/New-Agey wan, shallow conception when not overly derivative of composers like Bartok. Even Gach is a weak link, sounding hard-pressed and awkward in the fast, angular passages of the music. Perhaps this is an accurate depiction of Southern California music, if so then it is a musically blighted region, which I cannot believe. I would think objective producers could make a better compilation, but Fresh Piano has the whiff of an insular, self-produced product.

Anton Bruckner is the heaviest of all composers, or grandest depending on your taste. The American Record Guide lovingly describes his music as conveying the sense of standing on the mountain top, surveying the mystery of creation. His Symphony No. 5 is perhaps his most abstract work, in an overall body that touches on a lot of abstract ideas. Its quiet, slow introduction sets us instantly in the middle of its world, without preparation, and its “Adagio” movement is arguably the finest from a composer whose mastery of the slow orchestral movement is unsurpassed.

Bruckner poses two difficult interpretive challenges, the first being technical – holding together large scale, long-duration works that do not follow standard ideas of structure and musical development – the second aesthetic – plumbing the expressive sensibility of an artist whose naivety and wonder at the universe and his Catholic faith were his defining characteristics. Neeme Järvi’s interpretation, while leading the Residentie Orchestra The Hague, emphasizes the technical side so much that it fails in both regards. While all the notes sound fine and full, everything is simply too fast; Järvi’s “Adagio” is a third faster than those of Barenboim and Skrowaczeski, and almost fifty precent faster than Karajan’s. The conductor’s idea seems to be that if he rushes through then momentum alone will hold the Symphony together. It’s debased. Bruckner works best when one accepts his other-worldly pace and thus can maintain focus on the connective tissue, his extraordinary modulations, while the substantial emotional beauty builds and grows. Järvi seems to hear Bruckner as something like Schumann, when he’s at the far end of that composer’s logic. This is a recording that cannot bear any of the weight of the music it means to convey.

In contrast, modestly specialized projects can bear yields greater than expected, and prove to have lasting value and power. It’s easy to think of a CD with the title Waltzes, Tangos and Cinema Music as a trifle, but this collection of pieces by Jacob Gade, played with sympathy, pleasure and effervescence by Christian Westergaard, is not only satisfying, but such a joy that it grabs the attention and never lets go of its charms. Gade, famous for his “Tango Jalousie,” wrote these pieces for specific purposes – to get people to dance, to accompany silent films – and they are so well crafted, so smart, so musical that listening to them is as full an experience as listening to Beethoven. His aims were limited, his means direct, his results exceeding his goals. He has no argument to make other than asking us to listen, and, no matter the cliché or predictable gesture, the music gives constant, great pleasure. The superficial stature of this collection in no way keeps it from being one of the finest, most enjoyable releases of 2010.

What’s not to love?

The same perspective applies to a recording of Samuel Arnold’s Polly, a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera (that opera and the characters are more familiar today from Die Dreigroschenoper), in which Polly Peachum travels to the West Indies for a rendezvous with Macheath. Arnold meant to entertain with the 18th century equivalent of Broadway, and Polly is tremendously entertaining, with strong characterizations, sincere but not overly done melodrama, and just enough vulgar humor to pique without shocking. The vocal music is lively and melodic, full of energy, and this recording is exemplary. There is excellent, stylish singing from Laura Albino in the title role, and the entire cast is strong. Best of all is the playing of the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon. They’ve already distinguished themselves on recordings as one of the finest Baroque and Classical groups, and this may be their best performance yet, they make us believe that this is great music. Polly easily satisfies as a curio, the answer to an unexpected question, but the recording stands alone as a wonderful listening experience that one will return to frequently. Another top release for this year.

In terms of modest means, scope and outsized results, the yield per square foot champion may be San Francisco’s Meridian gallery. In a tiny upstairs room they have been presenting ambitious, creative music for years, and this year released a compilation entitle Earth Music, Ten Years of Meridian Music: Composers In Performance . This is an excellent CD, with contributions from the likes of Vinny Golia, John Bischoff, Pauline Oliveros, Ben Goldberg, Jon Raksin and others, the cream of the crop of experimental music in the Bay Area. The results are as varied as the performers, from meditative improvisations to realization of Anthony Braxton on asian instruments to live electronics. This is a focused set of performances, the musicians working to achieve specific results and succeeding across the board. The atmosphere of the recording gives the sound a sense that the room is larger than it is, but these are all live documents and the feeling that the musicians are working in mutual reaction with the audience is palpable. An excellent primer to an important and vital experimental music scene and venue.

Another fine survey of contemporary music comes from the Society of Composers, Inc. in their release Mosaic , a collection of pieces from Hee Yun Kim, Soon Jin Cho, Tasos Stylianou, James Romig, Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy, Sally Reid and Stephen Yip. Without bothering with conceptual goals or grand statements, the CD presents the music as is, representations of a group of composers with various ideas and styles. The strength of each piece gives the recording an underlying focus of quality even as the works themselves cover a broad range. If one general statement can be made, it is that this is music from composers who come out of an early-20th century idea of Expressionism, writing music that has an appealing amount of dissonance, dramatic energy and emotional depth. I’m especially fond of Kim’ opening “Memoir of Dong-Hak,” with it’s controlled, exuberant activity, Stylianou’s mysterious and surprising three part “Aneresis,” and Reid’s “Fiuggi Fanfare,” nicely written for a saxophone ensemble. Everything on the disc is of quality, however, and there is something to please and excite all sorts of tastes. In these releases, modesty saves the day and conquers the world.

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Old Sounds of My New Home

I used to live in New York City, but was away for grad school and life in general for 15 years. San Francisco was my home, and it was also the place where concert-going, especially to the San Francisco Symphony, became a major and inherent part of lving.

That’s begun again here, this past fall, and it helps make me feel back at home in my new/old home. There’s something about retracing old steps and adding new segments to old experiences that makes me feel at home (and I felt this way revisiting Venice last spring – a place I’ve never lived, but is now familiar and where I have routines and habits), back home. After watching the Giants beat the Cowboys in the playoffs, I went out to catch Paul Motian, Chris Potter and Jason Moran at The Village Vanguard, and seeing that familiar red sign glowing through the cold rain falling made me feel like I had never left the city.

Recently, I’ve been back to see the NY Phil, and it’s been an intriguing and slightly strange experience. I’m not going to give much of a review, but rather my impressions of the orchestra and how hearing them fits into the long accumulation of aesthetic experiences and ideas I’ve brought back to New York. Over a little more than a week, my wife and I went to two concerts, one with Ricardo Muti conducting the Schumann Piano Concerto and Bruckner Symphony No. 6, Radu Lupu as the soloist, and the other a performance of the Berio Sinfonia and Brahms 4th with Maazel.

The first concert was a real pleasure – the works on the program are favorites of mine to start with, and Bruckner is a composer who I am becoming more and more drawn too, and still have only a little experience with in the concert hall. Muti and Lupu kept the Schumann introspective, transparent and gently lyrical, it was absolutely lovely. The symphony was exciting and dramatic, and except for the last movement – which I think is a bit too episodic to really work – the performance was a pleasure. I was impressed by the clarity of textures in the Bruckner and the old world sound Muti got out of the orchestra, especially the winds. That sound, and the high-timbre, warbly vibrato horn, were the most intriguing part of the concert. Hearing them, the sound of the SF Symphony became much clearer to me in retrospect. The NY Phil sounded much more like the Berlin Stattskapelle than an American group, while San Francisco was cemented in my mind as one of the great contemporary orchestras, not just for their musicality and technical skill, but for their ability to play music like Mahler, Debussy, Ives and Stravinsky in an absolutely expressive and idiomatic way. That is certainly the legacy of MTT, just as this sound I heard in NY was surely the legacy of Masur.

So the following concert was a bit of a surprise. Sinfonia is a difficult, dazzling piece, and one of the most important ones to me personally. I had a cut-out Columbia Masterworks LP of the recording Berio himself led with the NY Phil – the commissioning group – and it was the piece that made me think of composing music in an entirely new, serious and truly contemporary way. Not to mention that it got me interested in this Mahler I had heard so much about. Considering the accomplished but old-fashioned style I had heard in the orchestra, and the fact that the programming by Maazel is as anodyne as can be, I was hoping for the best but not expecting much more than to be interested. But after a slightly stiff first movement, the performance was exciting, sharply played, full of color and very dynamic, very much sounding of the moment. I was impressed not only with this musical flexibility between the previous concert and this one, but also with the clear sense that Maazel knew this music intimately and was interested in it and excited by it. Who knew? Even more puzzling was that the Brahms performance, while perfectly acceptable, was also rather routine, without anything to say about this great, classic work.

I’m left with some optimism for the future and some puzzlement about the presence. If Maazel has nothing to say about the old warhorses he stuffs his programs with, why schedule these pieces? I have to believe it puts the truth to my line about how the administration there doesn’t want to wake up its subscribers. It’s left the Philharmonic pretty much irrelevant to the life of contemporary culture in New York. But then Maazel shows what’s possible with this group in contemporary music. And a new conductor  will be here soon, young enough to be a part of contemporary music. So perhaps there’s a lot to be confident about.

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