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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Concert Review: The Holy Egoism of Genius

Yannick Nézet-Séguin brings Bruckner back to Broad Street.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin in action. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
On Friday afternoon,  Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin re-introduced a rapt Verizon Hall audience to the music of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. Happily, the quality of Mr. Nézet-Séguin's performance indicated that Philadelphia listeners may have ten more Bruckner symphonies (including the "0" and "00") to enjoy in what will hopefully be a long and fruitful exploration.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin chose the Symphony No. 7 for this program, pairing it with the Siegfried Idyll. This gorgeous tone-painting by Richard Wagner is not an excerpt from the Ring. Rather it was intended as chamber music, and premiered as a private birthday present for Cosima, the composer's second wife. (The work does contains a number of key themes that were later incorporated into the final scene of Siegfried.)

Here, the Idyll was presented with a full symphony orchestra, adding weight to each leitmotiv. Mr. Nézet-Séguin took a slow tempo, allowing the music to breathe and painting tone-colors with a fine brush. With the expanded string section, previously buried themes from the Ring coalesced in the lower instruments. Woodwinds and horns produced a sound quality of dappled light. Bird-songs danced playfully around a  young hero's horn call. In the coda, a three-note figure appeared, hinting at the first bars of Parsifal.

Bruckner faced a perpetual artistic struggle in 19th century Vienna. The reason: he idolized Wagner's lofty artistic ambitions and admired his massive operas. He re-forged many of the composer's orchestral ideas into weighty, brass-heavy symphonies, each designed as a musical offering to God that reaches for the heights of the heavenly vault. The Seventh remains his most successful and popular symphony, written to commemorate Wagner's death in 1883. It is also the first of three Bruckner symphonies to feature the Wagner tubas, a mid-sized brass instrument with the tone and color of a French horn.

This performance elevated proceedings to a more spiritual plane. Mr. Nézet-Séguin conducted without a score, relying on memory, instinct and consummate musicianship. In the first movement, Bruckner's themes emerged not as blocks of granite but finely chiseled marble, played lovingly by the Philadelphia musicians. Mr. Nézet-Séguin gradually added weight to the statement--cellos joined by horns and then at last by a triumphant shout of heavy brass and timpani.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin produced a clear, shimmering sound in the long Adagio, underlining Bruckner's multiple Wagner quotations. The Wagner tubas thickened the sound, enriching the already impressive choir of brass. (Bruckner asks for three trumpets, three trombones, and five French horns.) The Scherzo was light-footed, almost playful despite its chugging, stomping rhythm. The central Trio proved a welcome interruption, with a nostalgic, almost Mozartean grace bathed in the lush sound of violas and cellos.

In the finale, Bruckner alternates three major musical ideas. Eventually, these ideas coalesce as climactic triple chords. These fortissimo statements were followed by mysterious long silences, allowing the listener to reflect and absorb each musical idea. When the final revelation came, it arrived in a burst of heavenly glory that left the audience both exhilarated and enervated. 

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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.