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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.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Concert Review: Silenced No More

The Carnegie Hall Brucknerthon continues with the Fourth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Quiet please: Daniel Barenboim leads the unquiet symphonies of Anton Bruckner at Carnegie Hall.
Photo © 2012 The BBC Proms courtesy Warner Brothers Classics.
Some composers take longer to find success than others. Consider if you will the case of one Joseph Anton Bruckner, whose remarkable odyssey from humble monastery organist to world-beating symphonist remains one of the most endearing and bizarre music stories from 19th century Austria. On Monday night, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin played the fourth concert in their nine-part voyage through Bruckner's symphonic output at Carnegie Hall, with a roof-raising performance of the Symphony No. 4.

It was paired with the Piano Concerto No. 26 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a composer who shared Bruckner's Austrian origins but had considerably more self-confidence. This concerto is nicknamed the "Coronation" and it is a display piece for Mozart's virtuosity at the piano. Trills, arpeggios and cascading scales adorn a simple orchestral accompaniment in the first movement, with Mr. Barenboim relaxing and cutting loose with a demonstration of his skill and experience as a soloist and conductor.

The sense of a virtuoso at play was very evident in the middle movement, a gentle, song-like melody that anticipates the simple music-hall style that Mozart would adopt in Die Zauberflöte. The piano threw itself back into the fray in the final movement, skating rings and curlicues around the orchestral accompaniment as Mr. Barenboim piled on the ornamentation. Only a conductor with long experience of his orchestra could lead as he did, showing how this trusted partnership of 25 years continues to bear fruit.

Bruckner's Fourth is actually the sixth symphony he composed, a mature and confident statement that forgoes the timid melodies of the Second and the slavish Wagner-worship of the Third for a bold, Romantic series of tone pictures. However it is also a symphony with a tortured history, undergoing four revisions and editions before Bruckner declared himself completely satisfied. Mr. Barenboim opted for the 1878 Haas edition of the score, with a few minor passages judiciously trimmed.

From the rising horn call that forms the work's motto theme, the Fourth is Bruckner's most descriptive symphony, the work where the composer veers dangerously close to the precipice of program music. The opening movement invokes an Austrian idea of a good time, with knights sallying forth in shining armor across drawbridges built from strings and brass. A diffident, dipping three note figure might indicate the bows of the peasantry as the knights charge forth, and the huge fortissimo might indicate the mighty blows of jousting at a medieval tournament.

The Andante is deceptive, built around a rocking four-note theme that reminds one of Wagner's Montsalvat, although Parsifal premiered five years after this symphony. It built to a tremendous climax, recalling the heroic rising theme of the first movement and building to a looming wall of sound. A rollicking "hunt" scherzo followed, although Bruckner's demanding writing for solo trumpet proved a challenge for the Staatskapelle's first chair.

The finale is all about resolving crisis in its opening bars, as if the time for games and hunts is over and it's time for the knights to go battle some unseen foe. However, Bruckner has one last trick up his sleeve: a massive reprise of the unison theme from the end of the second movement. Here, Mr. Barenboim brought the orchestra to the climax and left it there for a few minutes, giving the listener a glimpse into the paradise beyond that so obsessed this most religious of composers. It was simple, overwhelming and so powerful, a testament that Bruckner had, after so many years of struggle, arrived at last. 

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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.