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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.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Concert Review: Controversy and Counterpoint

The Bruckner odyssey continues with Symphony No. 5
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Bruckner-Orgel in St. Florian, Linz, Austria, where composer Anton Bruckner was chief organist.
It is also his final resting place. Photo by Greg Kraftschik for Wikipedia.
What's going at Carnegie Hall this week is historic. Not only is this nine concert marathon of Bruckner's published symphonies (in order) the first of its kind at that historic institution, but this is the first so-called Bruckner cycle in the history of the United States. On Tuesday night. Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin reached the midway point of their odyssey with the Symphony No. 5.

Unlike the first four evenings in the series, this concert did not open with Mr. Barenboim leading a Mozart piano concerto with himself as soloist. Instead, he conducted four of the Staatskapelle players in the Sinfonia concertante in E flat major, which may or may not be by Mozart but remains one of the most popular pieces for chamber orchestra from the classical era. With parts for solo oboe, bassoon, horn and clarinet leapfrogging over a prim orchestral tutti it is a pleasing and engaging work.

For those who have been attending every evening of this event (like your narrator) this piece provided a much needed solo spotlight for members of this excellent orchestra. Oboist Gregor Witt and clarinetist Matthias Glander deked, ducked and dove under each other's melodic lines in a series of playful arpeggios. Meanwhile, bassoonist Mathias Baier and horn player Ignacio GarcĂ­a explored the sonorites of their instruments both together and apart, and in the last movement showed themselves to be just as nimble as their cohorts.

Pairing this light wind concerto with a behemoth of a symphony provides a welcome contrast, especially when said symphony is the Bruckner Fifth. This was one of the most experimental of the composer's efforts in the genre, a work that was so far "out" for Viennese musical society that the only way the composer ever heard it in his lifetime was in a reduction for two pianos. Musically, it is Bruckner's most contrapuntal symphony, fusing 18th century fugues with a 19th century orchestra, with four sprawling movements that total around 75 minutes.

Bruckner's career started at the organ, an instrument he learned to play at childhood. In writing this piece, he began to treat the orchestra as a kind of giant organ itself, using blocks of brass, wind and strings in the way that an organist uses mechanical stops and presets in order to change the tone coming from the instrument. In this analogy Mr. Barenboim may be be seen as the organ's mechanical engine, his baton bringing the breath of life into the army of players arrayed on the stage.

The first movement opened with a downward walking bass figure, plucked by eight double basses across the back of the stage. This was interrupted by a partial fanfare in half the brass section, and an upward surging theme in the strings accented by a saucy comment from the winds. From these simple, rude materials Bruckner fashioned a flying buttress of sound to hold up his cathedral arch, a firm arrival in the symphony's home key of B Flat Major at the end of a long construction process.

The "cathedral" analogy has been done to death with Bruckner's symphonies but it is apt for the Fifth. The slow movement, with its downward, mournful theme in the oboe and bright, rising figure in the strings offered a glimpse into Bruckner's soul, with determination and triumph over anguish being the order of the day. The hammering Scherzo brought the full firepower of the brass and double timpani to bear on the audience, in preparation for the Olympian climb of the final movement. Here, the Berlin players went out in an enormous blaze of light, the expanded brass thundering out the resolved opening fanfare to glorious effect.

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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.