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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Concert Review: Knocking Out the Heavyweight

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Bruckner Seventh.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen does his best Karajan face. Photo © Signum Classics.
In the course of his conducting career, the Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen has focused heavily on the music of contemporary composers and the 20th century. True, there's been Beethoven here and there, and excursions into Wagner. However, as Mr. Salonen prepares to take over a new job in San Francisco, a reconsideration of repertory is no bad thing. This might explain why the first of Mr. Salonen's two concerts this weekend with the Philharmonia Orchestra focused exclusively on one of Anton Bruckner's enormous late symphonies, specifically the Symphony No. 7.

There is an argument that Bruckner, whose musical training was equally rooted in the Catholic Church and the grand orchestral visions of his contemporary Richard Wagner, was (without maybe realizing it himself) a kind of secret modernist. His works have been cited as an influence on the minimalists of the 20th century, particularly John Adams, and his idea of building grand structures from the simplest of musical ideas looks forward to those composers (and back, of course to Beethoven, who did the same thing in his symphonies and string quartets.

Bruckner waited half his life to blossom as a composer. Of his eleven symphonies, one (the Ninth) is incomplete. Two were rejected by the composer as "early" works: they bear the numbers "0" and "00" and are infrequently performed. All of his symphonies are on the strict classical four-movement structure, in the jumbo size that Beethoven first used for his Ninth. Like the others, the Seventh is a kind of upward journey toward an unreachable, celestial goal, expressed in gigantic terms with movements that can easily last twenty minutes each.

The composer's achievement is in his orchestration. The Seventh starts (as almost all of his do) with a Beethovenian string tremolo, over which horns solemnly intone the first subject of the piece. This call is answered diffidently by a choir of winds, with flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon playing in a tight group as if they were a pulled group of organ stops. The end of a musical line is reached. After a solemn pause, the idea repeated, with more "stops" (instruments) added to increase the weight of the musical structure.

Finally, the movement reaches cathedral-like mass and explodes in a descending cascade of brass, an oceanic flood of sound that owes much to his mentor Wagner. (Bruckner, a friend of Wagner's, went to the world premiere of the Ring and bluntly asked "Why did they burn the lady at the end?") Mr. Salonen brought the huge waves of chorale-like sound crashing down with the footprint of a giant, huge and significant as the first movement came to its brilliant close.

The next movement is the Adagio. Here, the already weighty brass section is further augmented with a quartet of Wagner tubas, the odd cross between a French horn and a euphonium that their namesake composer suggested in order to fill a middle range of sound in certain passages of the Ring. Bruckner added them after Wagner died, and this solemn movement is peppered with allusions to Wagner's work. In this performance their entry was unmistakeable. These oddly upturned horns have a dark, rich, quality. They add a nobility to the orchestration even as their players struggle to keep these finicky instruments in tune.

A rumbustuous Scherzo followed, built around the Ländler, the peasant dance favored by Bruckner and his later countryman Mahler. The hammering rhythms yielded to a trio of delicacy and grace. Mr. Salonen leapt right into the fray of the finale, directing the orchestra as it changed voices and choirs of strings were added by the song of woodwinds and the roar of the huge brass section. In the last pages, the grand cascade of the first movement returned in bigger form. Now supplanted by the Wagner tubas it had the effect of crushing the listener under a brassy avalanche of sound. What a way to go.

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