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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Concert Review: The Bruckner Express

Christoph von Dohnányi leads the Philadelphia Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christoph von Dohnányi.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's place among the world's great ensembles is attributed to the so-called "Philadelphia sound." This is a particular tone peculiar to the players of Broad Street: a rich, mellow sound that is held up as the hallmark of their long history. Facilitating this is an orchestral seating arrangement with the cellos are placed to the fore of the stage. This darkens the timbre of the orchestra slightly, creating a round, rich, full-bodied sound that has ensured a long and healthy career in the concert hall and recording studio.

Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, finishing up two weeks of concerts at the Kimmel Center, has never been one for tradition. At Friday's matinée concert featuring symphonies by Schubert and Bruckner the orchestra was somewhat reconfigured. Basses were moved to stage right. The cellos were next to them, behind the first violins. And the second violins occupied stage left downstage. The reconfigured band had a brighter tone than usual, with crisp, precise playing under Mr. Dohnányi's direction.

The concert opened with the two movements of Schubert's Eighth Symphony, known since the discovery of its manuscript in 1865 as the Unfinished. Schubert worked on the first two movement and sketched a third--but set the work aside in 1822, six years before his death. No one knows if the composer intended his Eighth to be discarded, if they were planned as a torso, or if he had a full symphony in the works. Mr. Dohnányi's performance treated the two movements as if they formed a complete work in their own right.

The somber first notes gave way the opening, with competing themes for double reeds over a plucked-and-bowed string ostinato. This was taken very slowly, forming a prelude to an entire movement given painful examination by the conductor. The lyric second movement slowed matters down further, the players carefully following Mr. Dohnányi's detail-obsessed approach in a performance that brought out the meditative qualities in Schubert's orchestration.

Bruckner's Fourth Symphony (nicknamed the Romantic) is at once among the shortest and most accessible of the Austrian composer's works, clocking in at a "lean" 65 minutes. It was assigned that nickname after its creator described vague images of courtly love, jousting knights and maidens fair to ensure that it would be better appreciated by the Bruckner-hating Viennese press. And it sort of worked, starting a tradition of tacking weird, pointless nicknames ("The Philosopher," "The Apocalyptic") onto Bruckner's mostly abstract, program-less symphonies.

Mr. Dohnányi took the opening horn-calls at a faster than normal speed, rushing headlong into the great climaxes of the big first movement. With a lively baton, he urged the ensemble forward, pulling the listener along in an exhilarating account that traded in castle battlements for the more profound glories written into the music itself. He was aided by superb playing from the Philadelphia brass and wind, which rose nobly to each of Bruckner's spire-like climaxes before subsiding and making way for the next feature of musical architecture.

This unconventional approach continued in the lyric second movement and the hunting Scherzo, movements which find the composer exploring the possibilities of A-B-A form. The third movement's central trio had an unusual lightness, like a Viennese pastry. This may have been a result of the changed orchestral seating arrangement. Mr. Dohnányi's early choices paid handsome dividends in the finale, which rose repeatedly to starry heights. Bruckner's Fourth is still a massive symphonic edifice, but this conductor ensured that this cathedral of sound did not collapse under its own weight.

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