An Evening with Anton Bruckner

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Mon, 2018-06-18 07:19

"An Evening with Simon O'Neill" it was not, even though the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's latest concert at the Michael Fowler Centre was billed as such. It's true that someone bearing an uncanny resemblance to O'Neill did put in a cameo appearance at the beginning of the evening, but was on stage for so short a time one couldn't be sure it was really he. And yes, this imposing personage did perform Wagner, O'Neill's favourite composer—but for a mere twenty minutes, whereas Heldentenors, in the wont of their hero, usually go on for days or weeks at a time. Moreover, this particular Wagner, the uncharacteristically benign Wesendonck Lieder, is normally sung by a mezzo-soprano and is well within the comfort zone of a competent baritone; thus the splendid ring of the O'Neill impersonator's lower register told this reviewer that indeed we had an impostor on our hands: an exceptional lyric baritone who really ought to pursue a career in his own right.

In all seriousness, an evening with Simon O'Neill and the NZSO is a seriously good idea that seriously ought to happen. A whole evening, with the tenor seriously letting his hair down, in opera, operetta, Broadway ... the works. One can tell from the wicked glint in Simon's eyes that just below the immaculately polished surface on such brief display on Saturday night is an unruly Mario Lanza itching to get out and wreak havoc. Let him out! Let's have some reckless abandon with High C's galore (or at least something above a G)! Quite apart from anything else, that, being a feat as much athletic as musical, would compete far more successfully with the All Blacks vs France than Saturday night's actual programme actually did! Who needs a Beauden Barrett or Damian McKenzie shot at goal when an O'Neill B-flat is on offer?!

Simon O'Neill was a prelude to the main event of what was really An Evening (and Early Morning) with Anton Bruckner: Symphony No 4 in E flat major. Bruckner is one of those composers whom devotees worship as God Himself while they argue with Inquisitional fanaticism about whose performance of which symphony is best or worst. I note with hilarity that the NZSO's performance has already occasioned such dissent among the aficionadi in the mainstream media. In The Press, Tony Ryan writes of the Christchurch concert:

I found this disappointing in Lawrence Renes' rather episodic interpretation. I have experienced Bruckner Fourths, including a previous NZSO example, where Bruckner's structural momentum carried me along on a wave of adrenaline. But here the word 'momentum' was far from my mind.

In the first movement, Renes placed more emphasis on Bruckner's "not too fast" instruction, rather than on the more important "Bewegt" – Agitated, so that the essential pulse and overarching shape was lost. The same problem afflicted the second and fourth movements, where a lack of a sense of structural end-goal prevented Bruckner's music from 'pumping' in the way it should. There was also a feeling that the composer's sharply-defined structural blocks had their edges smoothed. The brass sounded blended rather than burnished, and Renes failed to unleash the great 'cathedrals of sound' for which Bruckner is known.

Even so, the players responded superbly to the conductor's conception with playing of exceptional musicianship and refinement. Samuel Jacobs' faultless and beautifully-shaped horn solos need particular mention.

[Amen! to the observation re Mr. Jacobs, who never fails to excel.] John Button in the Dominion Post had no such reservations:

Bruckner was an organist and his symphonies reflect that in its huge sonorities, and it needs a top class orchestra and a sympathetic conductor to fully come to life.

Here it had both.

Lawrence Renes showed us back in 2007 with the monumental Eighth Symphony that he was a top-notch Bruckner conductor, and here he showed that time has made him even more assured.

And the present day NZSO is an even finer orchestra, so the sheer sound was overwhelming.

Whether it was the towering brass - the famous 'hunting' movement was memorable - or the superb weight of the massed strings, this was Bruckner out of the top drawer, and Renes marshalled his forces with an authority that swept all before it. And it was a fitting conclusion to the NZSO career of horn player Gregory Hill.

Absolutely brilliant stuff; what a pity the audience size didn't quite match the quality on stage.

Not being one of the aforementioned Bruckner devotees, I cannot readily adjudicate as to who is the more accurate here—and am little interested in finding out. To my mind Bruckner and his idol Wagner (him again!) were co-conspirators, in their escalating assaults on tonality and tunality, in the eventual destruction of the very Romanticism of which they were ostensibly part. As Eduard Hanslick so presciently observed at the time: “It is not out of the question that the future belongs to this muddled hangover style—which is no reason to regard the future with envy.” I note with a shudder that Conductor Renes is billed as a "champion of John Adams," Adams being an especially unedifying exemplar of how that future unfolded.

I note also, with relief, that the NZSO's next evenings are with Brahms and Tchaikovsky (Auckland Fri June 22, Wellington Sat June 23). Phew! Real music again! There's hope for a real evening with Simon O'Neill yet!