Culture Magazine

Concert Review: Climbing Twin Peaks

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Carnegie Hall Bruckner cycle reaches its climax.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Climbing Twin Peaks

Your guide to Bruckner: Daniel Barenboim.
Photo by Paul Schimhofer © 2017 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG

This week, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin are wrapping up their epic cycle of nine Bruckner symphonies at Carnegie Hall. Friday's concert featured the Symphony No. 7 paired with Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat Major. Saturday featured No. 8 all by itself: the longest work in the Bruckner catalog and the most demanding of the listener's sense of faith: in both Bruckner himself and the ability to build enormous bridges of sound bulwarked by harmony and counterpoint.
First, the Mozart. This three-movement concerto features twinned solo parts for violin and viola, and melodies that are so catchy they show up in the writing of later composers like Rossini. Here, soloists Wolfram Brandl (violin) and Yulia Deneyka (viola) played their parts with charm and bright energy, trading long melodic lines like two opera singers letting loose in a duet. Mr. Barenboim conducted the orchestra with careful restraint, letting the perfect logic of the music make its own statement.
The Seventh Symphony was a watershed for Bruckner. For the first time, he added Wagner tubas to the brass palette. These are small tubas invented by Wagner for the Ring, designed to be played by horn players. They bring of new colors in the brass, support the high songs of the horns and add richness and depth to the already massive orchestra. He also paid tribute to the older composer, whose death in 1883 shook Bruckner severely. The work, premiered in Leipzig instead of Vienna, gave Bruckner the success and acclaim that he had sought for so many years.
A hushed tremolo and then the song began in the cellos, rising up from the depths on a surge of violins and brass before cresting in a mighty rolling wave of sound. This gave way to a carpet of strings held together by taut, crisp winds as the orchestra set about a long, steady climb to a climax that evokes the first big crescendo in Das Rheingold. The Adagio that follows has its own Wagner tribute too, with the Wagner tubas taking the first theme and with their entry, altering the sonic landscape permanently for the better.
The full fury of the brass was unleashed in the Scherzo, with Mr. Barenboimn guiding his players in the pounding rhythm as if giants were playing see-saw with mile-long planks. The final movement is more lyrical, with another steady upward journey through the circle of keys, interrupted by growls from the newly expanded battalion of trombones and tubas. In the hands of a conductor like this the effect was simply devastating.
All this was warmup for Saturday's concert, featuring the Bruckner Eigth Symphony by itself with no Mozart make-weight. (That's because a performance of the Eighth can span up to 90 minutes.) Bruckner's success with the Seventh encouraged him to break more new ground here, but the negative opinion of conductor Hermann Levi caused the composer to withdraw the work, set about revising it (and his first four symphonies too!) and caused a crisis for conductors and musicologists who must agree on which version of the score is being performed. Mr. Barenboim favors a split edition: outer movements from the Robert Haas edition and the inner ones reflecting Bruckner's own original conception.
The Eighth is known as the "Apocalyptic" Symphony, and features its creator staking out new harmonic territory for an epic battle for the human soul. Its opening movement features another mysterious tremolo, and this time the upward trek is to the void between the stars. The Scherzo was placed in the second position this time out, with skittering string rhythms that give way to the onslaught of brass and percussion. This is the dance movement stretched to its absolute limit, with a long exposition that could be a symphonic movement in itself.
The epic slow movement uses themes drawn from Schubert and (of course) Wagner himself. It featured two gorgeous brass melodies, one elegaic that first in the higher Wagner tubas and is then roared out by the whole chorale, the second for the horns themselves and more elusive, slipping into the ear before hiding beneath the blanket of strings. The finale had Bruckner pushing the vast envelope of sound, unintentionally offering a preview of the music of the 20th century as he stretched the orchestra toward a climax in bright C major. Maybe he was a visionary after all.  

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