in: Reviews

April 9, 2016

BSO Pairs Diverse Austrian Works

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For the antepenultimate program of its 2015-2016 season, the Boston Symphony offers two pieces as unlike as can be from two Austrian composers: Mozart’s most successful concerto for stringed instruments, the elegant and poignant Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, and the grandiose, problematic, and rather galumphing Symphony No. 3 in D Minor by Anton Bruckner. Andris Nelsons conducted with his usual flair on Thursday night.

As one might expect from the many years they’ve played together, the soloists for the Mozart, principal violin Malcolm Lowe and principal viola Steven Ansell, matched one another excellently from that magical moment of their first solo entry in the opening movement, when they seem to arrive from the Empyrean in sustained octave E-flats high above the orchestra, to the very end. Since the solo parts consist generally of echoes and duets back and forth, this stylistic matching plays a significant role in a successful performance. The opening Allegro movement, the most energetic part of the work, offered touches of orchestral drama offset by delicate pizzicatos and charm. The closing Presto spotlights the soloists individually, echoing one another with cheerful wit. In the central movement, which ravishes the ear with grace and an aching poignancy, Lowe and Ansell excelled.

Nelsons chose the final 1889 version of  Bruckner’s Third Symphony. The work caused Bruckner considerable heartache, especially at its first performance, where, owing to the unexpected death of the intended conductor, Bruckner himself was forced to lead the performance, and to be subject to the humiliation of receiving minimal applause from a depleted audience (though one of those who remained to cheer was the young Gustav Mahler) while even the orchestra had left the stage. A second version with cuts and revisions came soon after. But later in life Bruckner was persuaded to revise it more substantially (with some help from his “friends”), and it was this final version that the Boston Symphony played.

One of the reasons that the Symphony caused Bruckner so much difficulty was that he chose to dedicate it to Richard Wagner, which put Bruckner in the wrong political camp as far as Viennese musical critics were concerned. Still, despite momentary Wagnerian touches, the piece reflects Bruckner’s musical world, which was shaped in the organ loft and which make for problems of musical continuity, at least to my ears.

Malcolm Lowe,-Andris Nelsons,and Steven Ansell (Winslow Townson photo)

Malcolm Lowe, Andris Nelsons, and Steven Ansell (Winslow Townson photo)

Bruckner tended to compose in musical blocks, passages that make their appearance then are suddenly replaced by quite different passages in striking contrast. This frequent movement from one kind of idea to a vastly different one surely reflects the art of the organist, suggesting as it does a musician at a large instrument containing three or more manuals, playing a phrase on one manual with a flute stop, for example, then you shifting to another manual set for the trumpet stop, followed by yet another phrase with the full organ. Often—rather disconcertingly—the phrase ends in a sudden silence, as if the player is taking a moment to reset the stops before continuing.

Of course the symphony is not an organ composition, yet it is filled with these stops and starts, suddenly changing color and theme and mood, that one must try to take it in as a complex musical gesture.

Andris Nelsons shaped the BSO players with rich color and expressiveness for each kind of phrase, with a ringing sound for the brasses, expressive solos in the woodwinds, and tremolos either delicate or dramatic in the strings. At full cry the sound of the orchestra is glorious. The contrasting lighter moments for woodwinds contrasted beautifully.  The pauses called for by the composer during the many breaks of phrasing seem to have been well calculated by the conductor, though they nonetheless felt like a breaking up of the musical flow. This strikes me as Bruckner’s issue rather than that of the performers. The final cadence, no matter how many times I hear it, always seems to come just too abruptly.

In this regard the work is perhaps Bruckner’s most problematic. The Fourth through Eighth symphonies and the torso of the Ninth seem to possess more satisfying flow. Still, it is good to return to the challenging pieces now and then, because each return offers another chance to get inside Bruckner’s head and come to grips with his language and his art. The BSO performance offered a beautifully played opportunity to do just that.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

7 Comments

  1. With regards to the Bruckner, I have to agree with Steven Ledbetter’s overall impression. Personally I found it to be an excellent performance of (the wrong version of) a problematic symphony. I thought that the BSO played superbly, and Andris Nelsons put forward a strong performance, but made the wrong choice of which of the 3 versions of the symphony to perform (more ahead). It was one of the best performances I’ve heard from Maestro Nelsons thus far, and that’s saying a lot.

    I’m a hardcore Bruckner-lover, but I have to say I think that the 3rd is the one symphony from the 9 numbered symphonies in which the whole does not vastly exceed the sum of the parts–which is not the case with each of the other Bruckner symphonies, including #1 and #2 (which some would also put in this category). I’ve generally thought of the 3rd as a noble failure which still contains some remarkable music, although a recent recording is making me re-think this.

    What saddened me the most about the BSO performance, however, was Nelsons’ decision to play the third version (1889) of this symphony. It’s really clear to me, from a lifetime of listening, that the first version (1873) of the third is the best of the three. No less an authority than Robert Simpson, the author of the astonishing “The Essence of Bruckner” (mandatory reading for anyone who loves Bruckner’s music), argues that Bruckner largely achieved the work in the first version, and subsequent revisions represented progressive ruinations of an imperfect but still largely realized piece of music. That’s really clear to these ears. I had not heard the 1889 version for nearly 15 years before this concert, and it was really interesting to be able to clearly hear how Bruckner muddied, unnecessarily complicated, and diminished the work from the much cleaner (and longer) 1873 version.

    While increasingly many conductors are embracing the 1873 version as the one to perform and record (including but not limited to Herbert Blomstedt, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Simone Young, Georg Tintner, Kent Nagano, Jonathan Nott, etc.), there is one new recording which takes an incredibly risky approach to the symphony and pulls it off: Remy Ballot and the Altomonte Orchestra, a festival orchestra that convenes at the St. Florian monastery, Austria (Bruckner’s spiritual home and where he is buried) during the annual BrucknerTage festival in August. This recording, from the live performance in August 2013, runs nearly 90 minutes–making it by far the longest performance of Bruckner’s 3rd. Yet it works, and brilliantly! I’m not a fan in general of extended, distended Bruckner, but nothing about this performance feels inorganic or drawn out. For those of you who are Bruckner-lovers, this recording is really something special. What’s distinctive about the Remy Ballot recording/performance is that it conveys an unusual loving warmth and profound dignity that are quite moving. I highly, highly recommend it.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — April 9, 2016 at 9:21 pm

  2. Unfortunately I missed this program. I am curious about one thing; does anyone know why Nelsons, or someone at the BSO, has decided the Bruckner must always be paired with Mozart ? They were together last year, they are together this year, and they will be together again next year. It’s starting to seem less like a coincidence, and more like a theory.

    Comment by SamW — April 9, 2016 at 10:03 pm

  3. I am not sure if Sam asked in a serious manner, since it is so obvious. The BSO marketing team has a few Brits, who by nature understand how to exploit consumer perceptions. And they are fully aware of the local intelligentsia’s Bruckner illiteracy … Mozart is an organic marketing tool.

    The musically educated really should allow their thinking to be baptized by my pious revelation: Even people who love classical know/understand so pathetically little about music as an art. Proof? When there is evident Bruckner quotation/misuse in Shostakovich 8, no one in the music world seem to know. When there is no clear music phrase association between Bruckner 3 and the great genius “the unreachable world-famous noble master of poetry and music” Wagner, the experts keep reporting the reminiscence/trace of magic fire from Walkuere at the end of of slow movement. The great genius Wagner must have recognized Bruckner’s own music genius examining the score. To speculate that the reason for acceptance of dedication is quotes from the great genius’ own work, reflects characteristically the shallow side of the Anglo world.

    When I was a teenager, I was immediately moved by Bruckner 3, first hearing it. It is a great tragedy that it is so overlooked, even by Bruckner lovers. The work has an innermost nature, only slow movement of 4th can compare, an mixture of respect and awe, only 5th and 9th can compare. Its ranking should be more like Beethoven 3 among the great 9.

    BSO performance history is heartbreaking, only 3 modern ones. But I don’t want to be too harsh on them. My fav conductor has a great recording of this work, but he never conducted one in live concert, a fact tortures my mind constantly. In this regard, Celi has his right to nag about ‘there’re do called Bruckner conductors who have never conducted a single concert …’ But it is the infrequent concert appearance saddens me most. How many Bruckner 3 (and 6) concerts can one attend in a life time? I should continue to be a champion promoting Bruckner 3.

    I said this before
    Many well known conductors have bad music taste, which is a fact too. Very intimately, I share this Bruckner golden rule with my fellow Bruckner lovers. (It is like Siegfried tells ‘friends’ he has a hole on his back) The rule is simple: any conductor who chooses edition other than 1889 Nowak for Bruckner 3 in performance/recording, can be safely disregarded in Bruckner worship. The list includes Solti, Haitink (surprise to some people?) … Celi at least chose the right score.

    BTW, Celi has a great EMI bruckner 3 recording, until almost the last moment when he shouted ‘di…’ to signal an entry. I wanted to kick him out of the podium.

    Finaly, the concert on Thurs. Nelsons did not say anything interesting in the interview. And his view on the versions does not impress me at all. The concert proves that this work is not close to him enough. The tempo is very very important. Even though there are many places in the 1st movement should be moderate or sehr langsam, it is vital to convey a sense of longing by carefully shaping the string lines. I am afraid Mr. Nelsons did not do/understand this very well. One the contrary, towards the end of the 2nd movement, ‘motion’ does not mean acceleration. The speed there destroyed the music line.

    Of course, BSO members contributed a lot to the effects. The 1st movement was better controlled by the conductor, close to being satisfactory. Starting from the middle of the 2nd movement, signs of being under-rehearsed showed up. After that, I think they felt tired of Bruckner. Did I hear a trumpet player play Mahler 1 tune during the intermission? believable. if true, he should be banned from performing Bruckner for life. The BSO need another dozen of rehearsals to get to a better shape for this work.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 10, 2016 at 12:29 am

  4. Great to read your review on BMI website here Steve…it has been too long! I am happy to report that Saturday night’s Bruckner performance was to me a vast improvement over Thursday’s first take. Tempo quickened a little and the string playing was committed but a bit more natural and relaxed so the flow ensued. The atmospheric quality emerged and transitions felt less awkward than before. This testifies to Nelsons talent as an orchestra persuader/evangelist. I have the feeling that the orchestra is still very skeptical of this music but Nelsons was able to extract credible playing from them. Bruckner 3rd is possibly the toughest hurdle in their ongoing Bruckner journey with Nelsons. Next season’s 6th should be more palatable to the player structurally. I am going back Tuesday for the final run…..

    Comment by Brucknerliebhaber — April 10, 2016 at 8:00 am

  5. SamW’s comment on the regular programming of Mozart and Bruckner together is interesting. At a BSO concert a few years ago, the Bruckner Sixth (my favorite Bruckner) was preceded by the Bartok Second Violin Concerto. Certainly an unlikely pairing, especially at the BSO, where things tend to be so predictable.

    Comment by George Hungerford — April 10, 2016 at 10:11 am

  6. Thorsten, I’ll take the bait. :) Can you share your thoughts why you feel the 1889 edition of the 3rd symphony is the best? I feel just the opposite, so I’m interested in your thoughts.

    Comment by Mogulmeiser — April 10, 2016 at 10:58 am

  7. MM, this is not a bait. Sorry, it took me longer than expected to reply.

    There are 3 major versions in recordings, 1873, 1877 and 1889. A few conductors who favors ‘authentic’ ‘uninfluenced’ Bruckner preferred 1873. More main stream is 1889. Not great many, but quite some so-called Brucknerian conductor chose 1877. More conductor chose 1889, perhaps not because they understood the music better, but rather because it was published earlier in 1959. It is superficial to assume that the later year version is the best, but it is even more superficial to assume that the later published version is more ‘authentic’. I am not going to write like an untalented music historian and spread speculations further. The music speaks for itself.

    One must understand the main theme, initially introduced by the trumpet, which the great genius Wagner approved of. (what does it mean? I asked the same question for other important works before) The long arch of the music line stretch throughout the first movement and to the end of the entire conclusion. To support and build this music image, it costs a lot music energy and no distraction can be afforded. One of the major differences between 1877 and 1889 is 13 bars after Letter P in 1st mov. (Haitink ~12:30 Boehm ~13:30). Just before P, string motion was introduced and alternated with the non-string effectively, since they play > when altogether and ascend while non-string pulses. The strings are reinforced in P. What a strong determination! With a typical accelerated pattern, it comes to bar 9-12. 1877 calls the Horns at 10 and 12, where should be and is pulse in 1889. The brass in 1877 does not push the music to higher climax, but they seriously undermine the strong up scale going strings. The music drive was lost. What made things worse was after bar 13, of course, with the purpose to compensate. 1877 score introduces a new round of fanfare, from early crude sketches (also used in 1873 version). But the phrase is way too unrefined, the pattern is incompatible with the previous development. The stoppage here, unlike the nature breathe from the other pulses, badly damages the music flow. 1889 ingeniously avoided this awkwardness. following the horns, the oboes and flutes play in an introspective mood, then followed by the brass with triplets patterns, which are much more coherent with the previous music lines. Eventually they transform into the main down scale theme, forming a local climax. In 1877, a flute solo (almost solo) earlier heard in section H (15 bars before J), is sandwiched between the chaotic fanfare. The intention is clear (to me), but one should only expect to hear this mysterious but intimate and doubtful tune before the closing statement, as as rightly done in the 1889 edition 5th bar in Y. In 1877, earlier (about Haitink 5:30), 14 and 15th bar in E, strings behave strangely in direction and rhythm (almost like uncut Brahms 3), which are also incompatible with the Q section I mentioned above. Thankfully, Bruckner fixed them in 1889, at the time, a much developed master in his own right.

    1873 has many music sketches but seriously unfocused. It has all the problems above and many more. There is another edition that I have recording, which is Kna’s Schalk edition. But my ears say the differences are small many years ago. I do not remember anything seriously offensive. Another reason I strongly dislike 1877 recordings is that those conductors’ distasteful shaping often couple with the worse score itself. Harnoncourt, Haitink, Sinopoli …

    I dedicate my effort to the greatest symphonist, unparalleled only closely following the music god Beethoven, true master Anton Bruckner.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 12, 2016 at 2:19 pm

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