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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Concert Review: The Door to Infinity

The Berlin Philharmonic plays the completed Bruckner Ninth.
by Paul Pelkonen.
Portrait of Sir Simon Rattle by Robert Lewis Booth.
© 2010 Robert Lewis Booth.

When Anton Bruckner died in 1896, he was working on his Ninth Symphony. He had finished three movements, but it was widely believed that the finale of this last work only existed as a few sketches, with not enough music to be performed. On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, New Yorkers were able to hear the completed symphony for the first time.

However, when a team of researchers and musicologists began investigating the composer's documents, they found (after assembling pieces of manuscript that had been taken as far as Washington D.C.) that Bruckner had indeed finished his final movement, at least up to the coda. (In a video on the Berlin Philharmonic website, music director Sir Simon Rattle explained that, in a work that was 650 bars of music, the musicologists only had to write 28 bars of music based on the composer's ideas.) The result is a giant, cosmic close to his last symphony, with huge brass figures, a massive orchestral fugue, and an organic, flowing exploration of the heavens and the ultimate meaning of life.

In 1992, when musicologists Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca, working with John A. Philips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, produced a performing version of the final movement of this symphony. It was revised in 2005. In 2011, the revision was re-worked and premiered in Sweden under conductor Daniel Harding. This concert marked the U.S. premiere of this new revision. An earlier version by William Carragan premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1984.

Bruckner was a deeply religious man, a Catholic who saw the writing of gigantic symphonies as a way to reach upwards to heaven and offer great works "to the dear Lord." The Ninth is his ultimate statement, a confrontation with the mysteries of the beyond that moves from earth-shaking fury to a stellar, cosmic realm where only the bravest conductors may tread safely.

Sir Simon Rattle is one of these conductors. Working from memory, the British maestro wasted no time in grappling with this work's cosmic mysteries. A hushed chord for the brass stammers, as if clearing its throat. Then the strings, Wagner tubas, and heavy brass announce a stately theme of flexibility and power. This first climax was a potent, visceral moment, seeming to shake the walls of Carnegie Hall.

The second movement was even better. Based on the form of a dance, this movement was more of a mosh pit for orchestra. The timpani took the lead in this tribal, pounding rhythm, playing with a savagery that reminded one of The Rite of Spring. The trio section was the perfect contrast, with grace and even humor  leads into a theme of flexibility and power. This made the return of the head-banging main theme even more jarring.

Bruckner called the third movement of this symphony--the last he completed--his "farewell to life." But the slow movement of this symphony sounds different when heard in context and not as Bruckner's "final statement." Under Sir Simon, the Berlin strings came to the fore, delivering a deeply heart-felt performance of this tortured, heart-rending Adagio. The sound rose in a series of slow, blossoming climaxes, powered by the mighty sound of the trumpets and Wagner tubas. The final dissonance hung in the air, a profound statement in its own right.

At that point, one hard-core Brucknerian got up and left. His mistake.

Much like the last movement of the Beethoven Ninth (without the singing), the Finale of the Bruckner Ninth brings together the themes from the first three movements. The questions asked by the descending opening theme of the first movement are answered by a dissonant, raging theme from the trumpets and horns. The whole is expressed in a gigantic double fugue over a thick texture of strings. The Berlin forces poured themselves into this music. At last, the major key returned with the ringing final trumpet chorale of the new coda (built from the same theme in the preceding Adagio.) This last theme became a key to the infinite, as Bruckner's final mysteries were unlocked at last.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.