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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Concert Review: The Age of Apocalypse

Franz Welser-Möst conducts Bruckner's Eighth Symphony at Lincoln Center.
Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst.
Photo by Mark Alan Lee © 2011 The Cleveland Orchestra.
On Saturday night, Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in the penultimate performance of Bruckner (r)Evolution. This was the penultimate concert of the ensemble's four-night stand at Avery Fisher Hall. The concert featured Bruckner's massive Eighth Symphony, which is simply too long to pair with any minimalist work by John Adams.

The Eighth was the last major work completed by Anton Bruckner, a 90-minute symphony in C minor, presented in four massive movements. Like the composer's other late symphonies, it consists of ever-ascending slow builds, rising spires of sound built from blocks of brass, wind, and strings. The symphony has no programme or nickname (some refer to it as the "Apocalyptic") but its intent is clear: Bruckner is trying to touch the face of God.

With these performances, Mr. Welser-Möst's stated goal is to express a new understanding of the composer he idolizes. To that end, Saturday night featured a rarity: the unrevised "original cut" of the work from 1887. This infrequently performed version is slightly longer and contains some unfamiliar passages in its first two movments. Bruckner revised the work in 1890. But on Saturday night, the earthy power of Bruckner's score stood revealed.

Mr. Welser-Möst took a surprising, fast tempo for the opening movement, creating driving figures in the strings that moved the work forward and opened vast sonic vistas for the listener. This enabled the full 18-piece Cleveland brass section to cut loose with massive, block chords, voiced in stately, organ-like tones by horns, trombones and Wagner tubas. The scherzo was taken at a slower pace, with the rustic peasants' dance steps of the Ländler moving with the tread of giants striding over the mountains of Bruckner's (and Mr. Welser-Möst's) native Austria.

The transcendent moment of this symphony is in its third movement, as Bruckner reveals his intent. It is a simple, descending figure in the horns and Wagner tubas. This theme, which stands at the crux of the whole work, is never repeated, though later variations and progressions allude to its beauty. It is as if the heavens open, and mere mortals listening are allowed a corner-of-the eye glimpse of the perfect design of the heavenly Empyrean.

The Cleveland forces played this important passage with care and beauty, led by the exceptional horn section. The whole Adagio, from its opening strings and horns to the final cymbal clashes, built slowly into a gorgeous structure, rising heavenward in anticipation of the massive finale.

Depending on who you ask, following a movement like that with a 30-minute finale may seem like an afterthought, or overkill. But under Mr. Welser-Möst's sure leadership, this robust finale seemed entirely appropriate to what came before. Here, Bruckner shows unexpected mastery of the art of transition, moving from one thematic block to the next, without the pauses that mark his earlier works. The result: a thrilling celestial journey through Bruckner's own imagination. As the trumpets rang out and the horns rose for the final, unision chords, one thought arose: this could be the soundtrack to a beautiful, serene Apocalypse.

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