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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.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Concert Review: The End is the Beginning

The Bruckner marathon begins at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle.
Photo © 2016 by Chris Christodolou.

One might argue that it is difficult to break new ground in classical music, but inventive conductors somehow find a way. On Thursday night, conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim opened the first complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies in the history of Carnegie Hall, with that composer's Symphony No. 1 paired with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27.

No. 27 was the last of Mozart's piano concertos, representing the composer's final thoughts in a genre that he helped to popularize in his too-brief life. Mr. Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle forces from the keyboard, standing to conduct the opening bars before settling at the Steinway, back to the audience to play the first notes. The long span of the first movement featured dialogue between keyboard and winds, the sound of Mozart laughing through the tears  evoked in the sad B minor key.

The central slow movement was dream-like, the piano singing its song with cautious, yet encouraging echoes from the oboes, bassoons and horns. The long rondo finale meandered at times, with Mr. Barenboim indulging himself in blurred arpeggios and leaping tall intervals in a single bound before bringing the orchestra back in on cue. The format of soloist-as-conductor can be problematic, but the pianist and his players were helped by their long professional relationship and the expertise of the Staatskapelle concertmaster.

The symphonies of Anton Bruckner are among the most important of the 19th century. Bruckner pushed the limits of the four-movement form, using very old ideas about polyphony and counterpoint to create something new. His is a school of symphonic creation with one invisible celestial teacher and one student: Bruckner himself. In a lesser composer this would smack of egotism but each work is weighted with simple rock-like faith and a mastery of counterpoint that was gained in his many improvisations on the organ.

Symphony No. 1 (heard here in the same unrevised version of the score that Bruckner conducted in Linz) ignores the ideas that one typically associates with Bruckner to create something entirely different. The slow misty string tremolo that begins most of Bruckner's later symphonies is absent here, replaced by a tramping rhythm in the double basses. These were arrayed across the back riser of the orchestra, well above the stage and working in conjunction with an athletic performance from the timpani. This rude rhythm seized the listener with a bold statement of purpose.

A tragic slow movement followed, possibly narrating Bruckner's unsuccessful attempt to woo and marry a girl in his small Austrian town. The oboes and horns lamented. The strings offered comfort without indulging in proto-Wagnerian transcendence. The Scherzo followed, another burst of rude energy expressed in a pounding, lumbering rhythm that alternated with a sweet, luscious trio for winds and strings. In the reprise of the main theme the sound was lean and mean, swinging with the force of a well-aimed ball-peen hammer.

The finale opened with another burst of sound, a dissonant, heavyweight chord that may represent the first of many ideas that Bruckner would adapt from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The chord quickly transformed into an ascending melody, climbing a long stairway of chords to a bright C major. Under Mr. Barenboim's leadership, this performance was a much-needed validation for this long neglected work as an original statement of ambition and confidence from a composer writing his first major public composition well into his middle age.

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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.