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Monday, January 30, 2017

Concert Review: The Last Steps to Infinity

Daniel Barenboim ends his Bruckner cycle with the Ninth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Daniel Barenboim in action at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Steve J. Sherman.
The first complete cycle of all nine numbered symphonies by Anton Bruckner came to its end on Sunday with a matinée concert featuring the composer's last work: the Symphony No. 9 in D minor. The project was the vision of conductor Daniel Barenboim, who led the Staatskapelle Berlin (as he has for the last 25 years) in all nine concerts at Carnegie Hall over eleven days.

Since the fourth movement of the Ninth was never completed, Mr. Barenboim paired the work (as he has throughout this festival) with a concerto by Mozart. In this case it was Piano Concerto No. 23, a bucolic work that the composer dashed off at the height of his powers. This is Mozart being at once both cheerful and soulful, choosing the still-new medium of the three-movement concerto to create a public forum for his most private thoughts.

Sitting at the Steinway and conducting with his back to the audience, Mr. Barenboim led a sparkling performance of this score, indulging in flashes of virtuosity and cueing the Staatskapelle musicians in a performance that sounded not only lovely but ringing with a sense of accomplishment and anticipation for the final, Herculean task that faced them in the second half of the concert.

The Ninth opens as its older brothers do, with a hushed tremolo of strings. This is the background for the unveiling of three key themes, which build on each other and intertwine on the upward path to a massive triple forte climax. This enormous opening movement depicts the terrors of the beyond for the dying composer but it held no terrors for Mr. Barenboim, who urged his players on, producing firm, resonant strings and clarion horns, the expanded brass singing a dirge as the massive movement ended.

For his last symphony, Bruckner created his biggest Scherzo yet, leaving pastorales and ländler aside for pounding timpani and an angular, demonic wind theme that anticipates the writing of Stravinsky and Shostakovich. True, there is a placid trio section, a wistful auf wiedersehen but it yields to that terrifying music again, conducted with unholy force by Mr. Barenboim.

The slow movement is the most remarkable of all, an upward, searching Adagio that conspicuously features the rising "Grail chords" from the prelude to Parsifal by Wagner. Writing his last symphony, Bruckner tips his floppy peasant hat one last time here, and then sets about creating a slow revelation in sound, heading for a radiant final section that sweeps the listener up in his fervor and faith. From the least confident of the great composers, this is music of certitude and faith.

Why did Bruckner leave the Ninth unfinished? Its composition was a torturous process for the aging composer. He battled a number of infirmities during its creation. He also lost critical time by revising his first four symphonies and the massive Eighth. He died at 72, just short of his goal. Recently, the completed manuscript pages of the finale have been discovered, assembled and performed (with the coda completed by another composer.) In this performance, the three movements proved to be profound. 

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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.