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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Walk on Bruckner Boulevard

The New York Philharmonic welcomes Kurt Masur back to Lincoln Center Wednesday night. He will conduct the Beethoven First Symphony and the Bruckner Seventh.

Anton Bruckner, the short Austrian church organist who idolized Beethoven and Wagner, spent his life constructing enormous symphonies, designed to glorify the divine and celebrate the human condition.

Like many of his contemporary 19th century composers, Bruckner wrote nine symphonies. (He actually completed 11, but two of them were rejected by the composer. Today, they are numbered "0" and "00" and are performed occasionaly.) Of the nine, the last one was unfinished. Bruckner, in ill health in his last few years, sketched a fourth movement, but never finished it as he was preoccupied with endless revisions on his Eighth.

To start listening to Bruckner, try the Fourth or Seventh Symphonies. These are generally considered his most accessible works. The Eighth is the mightiest structure of them all, although probably would have been eclipsed by the Ninth, which survives as a three-movement torso.

Bruckner's music is intended to reach upwards to the heavens. Each symphony starts with hushed tremolo in the strings, evoking Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He then erects huge spires of brass chords anchored in rolls of timpani and slow, thoughtful melodies. The orchestra plays in gigantic blocks of music, stopping and starting. A phrase will finish. There is a brief pause, and then it will repeat, with richer harmony and heavier orchestration.

Later movements often involve a ländler, the Austrian peasant dance that also appears in Mahler's symphonies. There is inevitably a contemplative, slow movement, and then a triumphant finale in which the sonic structures of the first movement are reassembled, rebuilt and brought to a towering climax.

There are many excellent complete (and incomplete) cycles of Bruckner symphonies, most available as a moderately-priced boxed set. Eugen Jochum's two cycles are excellent. Sergiu Celibdache's unique vision is preserved in a set of live recordings, and Daniel Barenboim's recent set has fine digital sound and the full brass sound of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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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.