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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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Concert Review: The Struggle and the Reward

Alan Gilbert takes on the Bruckner Eighth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Collaborators: Yefim Bronfman (at keyboard) and conductor Alan Gilbert.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 the New York Philharmonic.
The last completed work of a major composer has a special place in the music repertory. Last Friday night at the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert led a program featuring the penultimate utterances of Béla Bartók and Anton Bruckner: the former's Piano Concerto No. 3 and the latter's Symphony No. 8.  If there is a common ground between these works, both came as the composers neared the end of their respective lives, battling illness and a lack of understanding from their respective musical communities.

The concert opened with the Bartók, featuring pianist (and last year's Artist-in-Residence) Yefim Bronfman in the solo part written for the composer's wife. Mr. Bronfman played here with assurance, making Bartók's very difficult solo part look far easier than it was. The first entry of the piano sounded light, almost playful against the staccato rhythm of the orchestra, moving into its first descending soliloquy and trill in thrilling fashion.

At times in this first movement, Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Bronfman moved in perfect sync, sounding almost jazzy in their interpretation of Bartok's angular phrases. Yet this was simply a trick of the ear as all the notes were presented in correct fashiion. The piano dived with the woodwinds and percussion, moving against the shifting, panoramic accompaniment with the speed of thought. The central Adagio, a lullaby-like theme with elaborate keyboard filigree was subtly played. Sparks flew in the taut final movement, a cross between a dance movement and traditional finale built around an off-the-beat staccato and a nimble dance theme that capered under Mr. Bronfman's fleet fingers.

The Eighth Symphony is Bruckner's last completed work, the result of the composer's need to express his religious yearnings and desire for transcendence using the largest orchestra available in 1890. (Like all the other Bruckner symphonies it has a nickname: "The Apocalyptic.") Actually, the Eighth exists in four versions. Bruckner revisedthe original 1887 score in 1890 and 1892. Also, the musicologist Robert Haas created a hybrid version (incorporating some of his own musical ideas) in 1935, muddying the waters further.

Using the Leopold Nowak edition of the symphony published in 1955) Mr. Gilbert launched a muscular opening movement. The first two thematic ideas resonated with power and force, with the orchestra powering into drive under Mr. Gilbert's relentless leadership. Like the eye of a hurricane, the first horn solo gave the listener time to breathe and reflect before the storm crashed again. This lonely, isolated horn call, answered by a plaintive oboe, was filled with pathos, supported by gentle, breathed assurance by the lower brass. It echoed again with an equally beautiful flute solo in the movement's coda.

Plucked strings opened the scherzo, which was energetic but never frenzied or overly forceful. (Bruckner calls for Allegro moderato). The trio section featured gentle, dream-like winds and a part for three harps (the only time that instrument appears in Bruckner) a sharp contrast to the descending, driving dance rhythms of the initial theme. Mr. Gilbert played the famous Adagio as slow-motion poetry, highlighted by another horn solo at the movement's core.

The finale of this symphony is Bruckner at his most fierce, depicting either a furious herd of thundering Cossacks or the composer himself, standing and facing death and the uncertainty of redemption in his twilight years. Whichever poetic metaphor you choose, this was a thunderous performance, with Philharmonic timpanist Markus Rhoten gleefully answering the main theme with his mallets. This finale climbed ever upward on a mighty surge of strings, horns and Wagner tubas, reaching the summitt with breath to spare, leaving conductor, audience and presumably players thoroughly exhausted.

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