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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Finding the Cathedral

An approach to the music of Anton Bruckner.
A Viennese silhouette of Anton Bruckner at the organ.
Among the major symphonic composers of the 19th century, Anton Bruckner is one of the most popular, the most misunderstood, and for the novice listener, the most forbidding. Bruckner's eleven symphonies (counting the "student" work numbered "00" and the rejected Symphony in D (commonly known as "Die Nulte" or "Number 0") chart a vast evolutionary sweep.

Bruckner is a composer who has been accused by music writers of repeating himself in his symphare many clichés about this composer: "sky-reaching cathedrals of sound," "Bruckner rhythms" and "Block chords played like organ stops" to name the three most popular among critics. (Don't laugh. I've used all three of these, and there are others.)

My first encounter with Bruckner was in Boston when I was an enthusiastic, if callow graduate student pursuing a degree in journalism. At a local record store, I found a used promotional copy of Daniel Barenboim's second recording of the Eighth. I listened, or tried to, and quickly became lost in the vast sonic spans of this penultimate symphony. I didn't understand it. Eventually, that disc, with its pretty cover (a photograph of Saturn, the Seventh (!) planet--apparently Teldec marketers thought Bruckner was actually Holst) went back to the shop.

Eventually, the Seventh opened the door a little further for me, specifically with the cascading fanfares that end the first movement (recalling the surging melodies of Das Rheingold.) I had purchased a boxed set of the symphonies (used of course) the old Royal Concertgebouw recordings with Bernard Haitink. The following Adagio was affecting too, a funereal piece in memory of Richard Wagner.

Further understanding came through another (used) boxed set. I lent it to a co-worker--a horn player--who commented that the horns were out of tune in the Sixth Symphony. Horrified, I made sure that set didn't last long on my shelves. 

As I moved through my twenties, I attended the occasional Bruckner symphony performance. Most often, I heard the Seventh and the Fourth, favorites of then-New York Philharmonic music director Kurt Masur. While I read up on the composer, and wrote reviews of the performances I attended, I chose to immerse myself in the music of Mahler, Beethoven, and Richard Strauss. Bruckner would have to wait.

It was in the early summer of 2011 when my approach to Bruckner changed. I was in the midst of  in preparation for the Cleveland Orchestra's four-concert festival, Bruckner r(Evolution), featuring the 5th, 7th, 8th and the incomplete 9th paired with works by John Adams. These performances, led by noted Bruckner conductor Franz Welser-Möst, prompted me to delve into my archive of Bruckner recordings, boxed sets acquired due to curiosity about conductors and a self-confessed mania for collecting music. 

Part of the problem with approaching Bruckner is the question of editions. These symphonies were rewritten, revised and re-revised by the compoer, and changed even further following the composer's death. Some conductors choose the Robert Haas editions of the symphonies, which combine version to create performable hybrids of the symphonies. Others prefer the later versions by Leopold Nowak. And a few conductors (New York's own Leon Botstein, for example) opt to perform the "Schalke" editions which may be closer to what the composer originally intended. And then there's the question of whether or not to perform a completed final movement of the Ninth--and whether or not this completion is Bruckner's work or grand-standing by musicologists.

I began listening to these pieces almost exclusively: learning to differentiate the themes of the different symphonic movements, and the different approaches taken by a wide swath of conductors. I began with the basics: the warm, rich interpretations of Eugen Jochum, and the smooth ice-skating of Herbert von Karajan's Berlin cycle.

I delved into Mr. Barenboim's stripped-down  Chicago recordings (the conductor's first cycle, now back in print), Claudio Abbado's somewhat dissolute Fourth with Vienna, the throwback Romanticism of Christian Thielemann (his Dresden Bruckner Eighth is awesome) and the clean, modern stylings of Riccardo Chailly. I even sampled (and learned  to appreciate) the radical, anti-Romantic approach taken by that unexpected Brucknerian Pierre Boulez in his thoroughly unconventional Eighth recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Most of all, I gained a deep appreciation for the near-definitive recordings of Sergiu Celibidache. I kept returning to his early Deutsche Grammophon recordings, and have recently begun exploring his later work on EMI with the Munich Philharmonic. All this listening meant I had a deeper understanding of the composer, and the way his musical mind worked.

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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.