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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Concert Review: The Penance and the Glory

The Staatskapelle Dresden plays Bruckner's Eighth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christian Thielemann in action at Carnegie Hall.
Photo courtesy the Staatskapelle Dresden © 2013.
One of the criteria of a great symphony is its ability to endure interpretation and even reimagination at the hands of a master conductor. Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony is one of those works. On Friday night, the Staatskapelle Dresden and principal conductor Christian Thielemann presented this massive symphony as the second of two concerts this week at Carnegie Hall. As with Wednesday's Brahms concert, this performance was dedicated to Sir Colin Davis, the Conductor Laureate of the Staatskapelle who died last week.

This is Mr. Thielemann's first visit to New York since taking over the position of Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle, a revered orchestra with a tradition and history stretching back to the year 1548. The orchestra has its own unique tone: dark and burnished, like old, well-polished walnut. It was perfectly suited to this work, which was interpreted by Mr. Thielemann as a harrowing dark night of the soul.

This Bruckner's final completed work. It is a four-movement epic in which the devout composer confronts the inevitability of death and contemplates the infinite. (In the best tradition of Bruckner symphonies, it has the unofficial nickname of "the Apocalyptic.") Following the symphony's initial rejection by conductor Hermann Levi, Bruckner subjected the work to a number of revisions. Here, Mr. Thielemann chose the 1939 Robert Haas edition, placing the Scherzo before the slow movement.

The descending chords of the opening, answered by anguished cries from the English horn gave way to the bleak C minor landscapes of the first movement. Working without a score, Mr. Thielemann proved a sure-footed guide, leading the listener over rocky terrain and forcing confrontation with high mountains sculpted from brass and massed woodwinds. These peaks were dazzling, though clouded with minor-key storm-clouds.  But while Bruckner often ends his opening movements with a first reach toward the heavens, this one ended in muttered darkness.

The conductor took an aggressive approach to the Scherzo. Repetitive, obsessive string figures seeming to stutter before receiving answer from the low woodwinds A small army of brass players (six horns, four Wagner tubas, an array of trombones and on Friday night, two full bass tubas) entered the fray, offering hope in a series of ascending arpeggios. This dialogue was interrupted by the central trio, a lyrical section that offered some measure of comfort before the stormy first theme returned.

The slow movement is one of Bruckner's great structures. Here, the dark tone of the ensemble made this slow, questing music sound riddled with self-doubt. Massed strings sounded the main theme, their declarations emphasized by the choir of brass and the delicate pluck of harps.  At the music's height, a horn figure entered as if from above, a possible answer from Heaven to the penitent's cries. From there, the music ascended once more in a swelling, building surge of sound that yielded once more to a hushed, sad choir of horns and Wagner tubas.

The Dresden brass took the lead in the final movement, leading off an insistent rhythm answered by brutal blows from the timpani. This enormous finale took on the proportion of a grand cosmic battle, with the final sections incorporating the three previous movements  as Bruckner attempted to solve the mysteries of the infinite in the final bars. The climax, in a glowing C Major surge offered redemption at last, as the themes came together in a final shout of horns, hammering percussion and ringing trumpets.

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