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:

Keepin' It Real

Links and Lists:

The Year in Beethoven

Beethoven is eternal, the calendar just marks time. But we note things that happened during a year and remember it that way, and we reward things from a given you, so it’s time to look at the year in Beethoven. You might find a good gift:

If you all you know of Beethoven is the symphonies, you’re doing fine. If you know the string quartets and piano sonatas, then you are familiar with a good amount of the central masterworks in Western classical music. This year in Beethoven begins with two collections of the symphonies, and please note that before them I already had … fifteen, why do you ask … complete sets, along with various single and partial cycles, There is literally not enough time in the year to listen to those, yet I’ve been mostly listening to Daniel Barenboim’s new cycle, with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and a box that collects previous recordings by Jan Willem de Vriend and the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.

Continue reading

April Playlist

Recommended recordings, new and old:

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Jerome Sabbagh, Plugged In, on the Bee Jazz label, is packed full of great thinking and playing, it touches on many styles but subverts them all into the Sabbagh’s overall conception, which has grown in both focus and expansiveness. Jozef Dumoulin’s keyboard work, from both the hard-bop tradition and Joe Zawinul’s legacy, is an enormous asset. One of the most satisfying jazz discs so far this year (more album info here).

Beethoven: Complete Symphonies, Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

Simeon ten Holt: Canto Ostinato, Jeroen van Veen, Sandra van Veen

Elvis Costello, The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook

Ysaye: 6 Sonatas Op. 27, Tai Murray, a powerful, involving disc. These are great and unusual pieces, bravura and thus extroverted but built of of Ysaye’s very personal memories and sensations of violinists he knew and fragments of music they played and he loved. Murray handles to the technical demands with seeming ease, and plays with a gorgeously full, woody sound. What makes the playing special, though, is that she trusts the sonic beauty of her instrument to reach the audience as she digs deep down into the interior of the music, and herself. She seems to disappear, leaving a direct path to the music. As good as it gets.

Mahler, The Conclusion

The Mahler cycle came to a close Sunday afternoon with Barenboim conducting the 9th. Since my previous post, I had attended concerts of the 6th and 7th, with Boulez and Barenboim respectively, but unfortunately missed the 8th and Das Lied from being under the weather and a more important commitment – my wife’s play! The best laid plans . . .

Having reached the end, I can see the whole more clearly, and it was embodied in these last three events. Boulez, as always, produces a wonderful sound, and Mahler’s orchestrations in these later works press all his colors farther, particularly the acrid, shining and dark flavors. The conductor presents these beautifully, and shapes the movements carefully. He placed both the cowbells and tubular bells of the final movement offstage, which had a wonderful effect of presenting a far-off and unobtainable solace. Boulez is great at giving you the music, in small and large scales. Where he sometimes disappoints is in presenting the narrative drama, which is essential to Mahler, so the finale of the 6th didn’t grip me with a sense of impending, and inevitable, tragedy, until the coda.

After the incredible 5th, I anticipated more spectacular music-making from Barenboim, and his 7th was mostly ravishing and exhilarating. While I find the 4th increasingly odd, I find the 7th increasingly understandable – it’s almost Mahler’s go at absolute music. The relentless major key tone of the finale can be hard to pull off well because the previous sense of conflict is less than accustomed, but Barenboim drove it hard, too hard I think. He is sincerely excited and thrilled by the music, but like Bernstein’s self-identification with the composer, a bit of control, a small step back can make the most of that feeling. Barenboim is involved. That concert opened with a beautiful performance of the Wayfarer songs by the great Thomas Hampson. He’s not just an excellent singer but an artist as well, offering thoughtful and sincere characterization of the sense and context of the music, without falling into mannerisms. I’ve seen him sing Mahler a lot, and it’s always special.

The 9th was frustrating. Barenboim began with slightly fast but well-measured pace, and pressed the intensity of the turbulent passages. However, rather than finding a way back to repose, he continued to press that intensity, which was a problem for the performance overall. This is an almost unfathomably profound work, and the nothing I know of equals it for depth and breadth of feeling and experience. To do it justice, I believe, it must be approached with a broad view, both emotionally and musically. But Barenboim pressed everything; the landler was brittle, lacking humor; he muddled the tempo of the rondo-burleske and so could not build from intensity to frenzy. The finale was overdone – Mahler does demand some extremes, but opposing ones, these were homogenous.

The orchestra, amazingly, still sounded fairly fresh at the end. They are a little below the top flight groups, especially in terms of the brass and horns, but they have a great sound and play idiomatically with ease. I want to especially note the exceptional concertmaster, Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf, as well as superb playing from Hartmut Schuldt on Bass Clarinet and Tatjana Winkler on the English Horn. While I’m sure they were exhausted, I think the experience was renewing in a way. I find myself loving Mahler even more, and in fact listening to Mahler even more. Hearing the works in concert brought me back to recordings, and my days were filled with the same sounds, and it was always new and exciting and beautiful. For listening, I found myself going through Simon Rattle’s cycle and always returning to the Gary Bertini set, which more and more I think is the single best boxed Mahler cycle in terms of performances and value. I also want to mention the great essays by the two conductors in the program book, Boulez’s especially is stunning, and I’m going to be exploring it’s implications, and very specific Mahler works, in the near future. Thanks for sticking with me.

Mahler 4 & 5

The Mahler cycle continues tonight, with Boulez leading the Sixth. Yesterday was a refreshing break, after concerts of the 4th and 5th symphonies over the weekend. Saturday night it was Boulez leading selections from the Wunderhorn songs and the 4th, with Dorothea Roschmann back singing. The songs were nicely done, but I find excerpts from that work far less compelling than the thing as a whole – there is a lot more charm there than a handful of selections can convey. The 4th symphony has a surfeit of charm, and as the most compact and immediately pretty of the composer’s works, it’s quite popular. I found it increasingly strange, however. Sleighbells! Country fiddle! A song about, literally, a heavenly feast! This is Mahler consolidating his skills and leaving himself to private pleasures, I think. The emotional content is non-narrative and hermetic, the composer’s thoughts to himself. It’s lovely, inventive music, it always sounds unexpected, yet I cannot think of a way that the individual movements fit together in terms of meaning. It is less clear each time, which says a lot about how I listen and think. The performance was relaxed, the slow movement properly rapturous, and Roschmann was excellent in the finale, singing with the appropriate child-like unselfconsciousness.

The Mahler 5th Symphony Sunday afternoon, preceded by Thomas Quasthoff’s excellent performance of the Ruckert Lieder, was one of the great concert-going experiences of my life. I have never heard this work conveyed with such a sense of ultimate possibilities – it was not merely the greatest performance I’ve heard, it was the greatest I can imagine. The orchestra played with utter physical and emotional commitment and concentration, but credit must go to Barenboim. His focus, decisions, control and taste were astonishing. Not only was each tempo perfect, but each modulation and shade of dynamic was perfect for the moment. He conveyed all the luster, dignity, poise, joy, fire, rage and violence by drawing exquisitely fine contrasts between all these states, which meant he never needed to indulge in any one to make a point. His take on the famous Adagietto was extraordinarily thoughtful and imaginative – this has taken on the guise of funeral music in contemporary, which it is not, and is often played at a dirge-like tempo. There is some confusion that Mahler created, by marking both adagietto (a little slow) and Sehr langsam (very slow). Conductors primarily choose the latter. Barenboim began with a marvelous, lithe fade-in from absolute silence, then carried the music along at a true adagietto, relaxed but flowing. It was only at the coda, with a reprise of the opening material, the he slowed the tempo. Simple, brilliant, powerful. He also shaded the relentless major keys of the finale with enough dynamics and color to keep the tension alive, and so the glorious climax was especially rewarding and moving, and all without have to press for more volume or less speed. An enthralling performance, exciting in it’s sheer incredible skill and artistry, that I wished would not end and that I still carry with me. Bravissimo, maestro.

Mahler 4 & 5

The Mahler cycle continues tonight, with Boulez leading the Sixth. Yesterday was a refreshing break, after concerts of the 4th and 5th symphonies over the weekend. Saturday night it was Boulez leading selections from the Wunderhorn songs and the 4th, with Dorothea Roschmann back singing. The songs were nicely done, but I find excerpts from that work far less compelling than the thing as a whole – there is a lot more charm there than a handful of selections can convey. The 4th symphony has a surfeit of charm, and as the most compact and immediately pretty of the composer’s works, it’s quite popular. I found it increasingly strange, however. Sleighbells! Country fiddle! A song about, literally, a heavenly feast! This is Mahler consolidating his skills and leaving himself to private pleasures, I think. The emotional content is non-narrative and hermetic, the composer’s thoughts to himself. It’s lovely, inventive music, it always sounds unexpected, yet I cannot think of a way that the individual movements fit together in terms of meaning. It is less clear each time, which says a lot about how I listen and think. The performance was relaxed, the slow movement properly rapturous, and Roschmann was excellent in the finale, singing with the appropriate child-like unselfconsciousness.

The Mahler 5th Symphony Sunday afternoon, preceded by Thomas Quasthoff’s excellent performance of the Ruckert Lieder, was one of the great concert-going experiences of my life. I have never heard this work conveyed with such a sense of ultimate possibilities – it was not merely the greatest performance I’ve heard, it was the greatest I can imagine. The orchestra played with utter physical and emotional commitment and concentration, but credit must go to Barenboim. His focus, decisions, control and taste were astonishing. Not only was each tempo perfect, but each modulation and shade of dynamic was perfect for the moment. He conveyed all the luster, dignity, poise, joy, fire, rage and violence by drawing exquisitely fine contrasts between all these states, which meant he never needed to indulge in any one to make a point. His take on the famous Adagietto was extraordinarily thoughtful and imaginative – this has taken on the guise of funeral music in contemporary, which it is not, and is often played at a dirge-like tempo. There is some confusion that Mahler created, by marking both adagietto (a little slow) and Sehr langsam (very slow). Conductors primarily choose the latter. Barenboim began with a marvelous, lithe fade-in from absolute silence, then carried the music along at a true adagietto, relaxed but flowing. It was only at the coda, with a reprise of the opening material, the he slowed the tempo. Simple, brilliant, powerful. He also shaded the relentless major keys of the finale with enough dynamics and color to keep the tension alive, and so the glorious climax was especially rewarding and moving, and all without have to press for more volume or less speed. An enthralling performance, exciting in it’s sheer incredible skill and artistry, that I wished would not end and that I still carry with me. Bravissimo, maestro.