Great Bruckner—Now for some Music!

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Tue, 2015-09-01 03:35

Anton Bruckner, writer of nine uncommonly long symphonies and many other compositions, worried that when he met his maker, God might ask him why he hadn't written still more music. Were I God, I'd be more inclined to ask him why he'd written any—or more precisely, none. The transiently intriguing clamours and commotions of which a Bruckner construction typically consists cannot be considered music if we require of music that it be intelligible and coherent, that it offer melody rather than motifs with jarring harmonies repeated every which way, that it be predominantly uplifting rather than disconcerting. Bruckner is not music; he is an unending series of intimations, simulations, approximations and violations thereof.

Frances Moore, writer of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's programme notes, takes a different view. She is clearly a fan, who puts the best possible gloss on the above features of Brucknerism: "Enveloping us in waves of sounds by taking very simple musical patterns and composing slow and intricate crescendo surges demands a different relationship to time and space. Bruckner insists on drawing your attention to how a space can gradually resound, and because of this his symphonies are amongst the longest in the repertoire."

One of my idols, Freddy Kempf, is a veritable Bruckner fiend, who has tried in vain to convert me.

Yet another fiend and friend writes of Bruckner's Symphony No. 8: "It captures a unique combination of semi-Wagnerian ideas, in a symphonic way (over four movements, which Wagner never accomplished), with Bruckner's mysticisms and his highly individualistic symphonic structure, along with all of his other idiosyncrasies almost perfectly executed. It contains some of the most glorious moments in music. Movements 1 and 2 are great, but they lead to 3 and 4 which are amazing. No. 8 is Bruckner's greatest accomplishment."

Critic Eduard Hanslick was less eulogistic and, in my view much more accurate. He called the work "an interminable lamentation" under whose "sheer weight and monotony" the listener is "simply crushed. ... [T]ossed about between intoxication and desolation, we arrive at no definite impression and enjoy no artistic pleasure. Everything flows, without clarity and without order, willy-nilly, into dismal long-windedness." It's possible that Bruckner himself had similar qualms, since he reworked the thing innumerable times.

The NZSO performed the original version of it with far more skill and verve than it merits at the Michael Fowler Centre last Friday. Who could blame them for revelling in such grand-scale mayhem, replete with all those fun Wagner tubas and "intricate crescendo surges"?! Conductor Simone Young, who spent much of the symphony airborne, is clearly an unbridled enthusiast for this sort of thing—she's done Bruckner here before, and approaches it with rollicking relish. Wellington's concert-goers, however, seem not to share it widely; the venue, sadly, was little more than half-full, and some who were there for the first part of the programme (the Sibelius Violin Concerto, compellingly played by Baiba Skride) left during the interval.

The concert is yet to be repeated in Dunedin (Wednesday Sept 2) and Auckland (Saturday Sept 5). I wouldn't want my comments to deter anyone from attending and making up his/her own mind. Far from it. The orchestra's and Ms. Young's infectious levitation is alone worth the price of admission, even for those who would prefer a vehicle for it comprising music. It occurs to me too that Bruckner should have immense appeal to those among whom the fashionable Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome is endemic, for whom anything is "cool" as long as it's loud and they can text or tweet while it's going on. (Cellphones are supposed to be off during performances, but a 90-minute symphony stands no chance these days against an addiction to an affliction.) For this group of people, anything "without clarity, without order and willy-nilly" is automatically great—and I do like to see the young folk enjoying themselves. "Millennials," in other words should flock to this event as they would to Slipknot.

Me, however, unreconstructed dinosaur that I am ... well, after Mahler in July and Bruckner in August I'm really looking forward to The Blue Danube in September!


Freddy responds ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Freddy the "veritable Bruckner fiend" who tried to convert me says:

Dear Lindsay,

I will always respect passion – which you are absolutely brimming with. I think it’s wonderful that not everyone loves exactly the same as everyone else. I’m sorry this performance didn’t manage to convince you – but it doesn’t really matter.

Freddy will soon be performing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in Moscow. Heaven couldn't hold any greater joys than that. Not even to be told by one of one's idols that one is "absolutely brimming with passion." Smiling

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