Sunday, 8 September 2013

Bach, Bruckner: concert

Royal Albert Hall
6 September 2013

Looking suitably excited, Maazel conducting the finale of Bruckner's eighth, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. 
From here.

Resounding night-before-the Last-Night Prom.

I spent the majority of the Bruckner 8 in a state of rapt attention, in what I imagine would be a suggestible hypnotic state. It is an effect peculiar to Bruckner, and different from the state that, say Gorecki or Glass can induce with their slow or fast repetitions respectively.

Unlike our contemporary long-spanned composers, Bruckner is not exploring a single emotional state at great length. His symphonies are intensely dramatic, in the line of Beethoven, and actually the older school of Brucknerians, archetypally Furtwängler, created a much less rhapsodic effect with extreme tempo fluctuations.

The current tradition in playing these masterpieces is a steady, broad pulse with emphasis on projecting their astonishing grandeur. As happens here, this risks downplaying the significance of the final climax of the first movement, a moment of terrible crisis which haunts the following two movements and is only resolved after a struggle in the finale.

In other Proms concerts, some members of the audience applaud particular movements, and this is understandable. Here, I doubt anyone imagined applauding until the end of this enormous work, and this could either reflect the exhaustion we feel after each movement, or our awareness that the symphony must obviously continue, to resolve in some way.

The Royal Albert Hall felt saturated with sound, a wondrous experience, and I assume that conductor Lorin Maazel must take some credit for this, as the ‘sound’ of a work is one of the areas in which he is highly regarded. I imagine the Vienna Philharmonic could play this music in their sleep, and so deserve even more of the credit.

The finale is a great challenge, and part of this is because Bruckner must have found it formidably difficult to compose, much as he later did with sketches of a finale for his ninth. What can properly relieve the previous three movements, most especially the intensity of the preceding slow movement?

I didn’t notice any great difficulties in the tricky transitions in the finale, though I did wonder if Maazel had really plumbed the depths and heights in the slow movement. But the only serious blemish was the trio in the second movement, driven too hard and fast.

The first part of the concert was almost inevitably obliterated in comparison, but was a thoughtful example of programming: Bach organ works and transcriptions, played by Bruckner’s current successor as organist in St Florian.

Klaus Sonnleitner grappled with the unwieldy brute of an organ, hardly optimised for Bach, and produced excellent results. His encore was much better suited to the instrument, but that didn’t matter. The sense that Bruckner was at the organ, as indeed he was in 1871, was a magical prelude to what I believe is the greatest of orchestral works.

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