Brucknerthon - 27 Feb 2010 - Part 2

Symphony No 4 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Bohm

Karl Bohm didn't record much Bruckner - a Third and Fourth symphony for Decca and a Seventh and Eighth symphony for DG in the stereo era.

This recording of the Fourth has been well regarded since its release in the mid sixties. Bohm was a bit of a dictatorial conductor we hear and his stern business like manner sometimes seems unyielding in Mozart and Beethoven. Here his determined foot fall sweeps the music along: it is very dramatic and where other conductors are warm and sunny in Bruckner's so called "Romantic" symphony. The first movement is one of the best in the early symphonies and Bohm takes it at speed and with huge grandeur - the style has much in common with Jochum but with much more straightforward to the priorities on the page. Its highly focused on the melody. The Andante, Quasi Allegretto, second movement has a little too much of a plod for me - though the glorious Vienna playing helps pass some of the workaday music. the recording is just astounding for its time too and in the dying embers of the Andante it is wonderfully lucid and quiet.

The Scherzo and Trio - in other heads has a greater depth, mystery and panache: Bohm heads into ratehr like a bull at a gate. I'm convinced that this kind of macho abrasiveness works. The woodwind passages seem to lose momentum and it all gets a bit too much like bluster. the Trio is dreamy in its sound scape, but rather four square in its execution. The finale opens with all the contrapuntal acumen Bohm and his players can muster, but soon after the second subject oozes in with a Viennese sweetness that one knows is going to end in trouble. Bruckner allows the melodies to dally and after a certain amount of "milling about" the erupting progressions are just plain loud with Bohm making no attempt to soften the sterile effect with the complementary downward figures we hear more of nowadays. Bohm brings out the Wagnerian soundbites with aplomb but can't hold them together. But oh how this finale drags - which is such a shame because its coda is divine. Bohm delivers an intense, deeply moving coda - full of Wagnerian portent, supremely realised by orchestra and recording engineers alike (though they sound to have moved the mics in closer and re-arranged the horns on the sound stage). It is worth hearing the reading for that coda alone: and who's to say on some days one would just listen to the last three minutes just to hear the wonders of the 1960s VPO strings. Putting that crowning glory to one side - its not a reading that works for me - its too brusque and has none of the mysteries of the forest about it.

Symphony No 5
New Japan Philharmonic/Ashina

In Japan Ashina was the Bruckner conductor and his records, videos and concert performances were gobbled up by an adoring and idolising fan base - but little seeped through to the West. Now we have more of it and here's a piece of it to bring a little exoticism to Bruckner's most mystical work - so much of it is four square and formulaic, but it plays with us in a sensually which is quite direct and bold. There's an ascetic feverish quality to its heights but they are dealt out and withdrawn with an almost sexual intensity.

First movement starts well but by ten minutes in playing errors interrupt Ashina's stately progress. No matter this symphony only needs to set the scene for its first 40 minutes! Its a protracted birth with Ashina's vocalisation adding to the creative drama. Ultimately it is beautifully paced and well enough played and once into the swing the detail is excellent and the playing has a certain rugged charm and sturdy momentum. For absolutely no good reason he careers off into the coda - it is something of a shock after the forensic detail exposed with care. Its carried off with aplomb and that's that! More unexpected but kinda kooky willfulness from Ashina in the second movement which is marked Adagio but actually moves quite quickly. Impressive balance, control and execution in the "big tune" and a beautifully full recordings make it bloom.

The Scherzo and Trio are labile - quick in places, slower than expected in others. I quite like its electricity and drams and this may be part of Ashina's legendary long term control.

Unlike the Fourth the is no way I'd suggest anyone listened to this symphony's last three minutes alone. The Fifth is all about the testing of harmonic resilience both in the composer's head and then in real time to his audience. Everything that has happened in the preceding hour is relevant to what happens in this last movement - particularly the last 5 minutes.

The movement starts with a reminiscence of its predecessors and then a square on fugue which kinda fizzles out. Ashina presses here - much to my delight. This movement has to have a momentum even when great singing melodies seek to divert our attention. The goal here isn't in the melody at all - this is about harmony Ashina is acutely aware of his need to keep us on our way. I like it. The smooth juggernaut fugue at the centre of the movement - which serves little purpose other than to tie us in harmonic knots from which Bruckner (and Ashina) can spring us at the last moment. This is about controlling that moment; and Ashina's patience is fantastically planned. His orchestra too have played so well - and at those crucial moments of relaxation when it all seems to stall on the hint of a fugue waiting to happen and later when the music seems to go into reverse: the players hold steady. Ashina's fantastic grip on proceedings is a wonder. As we enter the final five minutes and the flood gates are opened on the back of a drum-roll and a cheeky squeaks from the winds, Ashina chooses to speed up then slow dramatically. The ending where the huge ecstatic final aspiration of our starting chorale should be a transcendental experience is horrid. Ashina uses his iron control to slow the moment as though the prelude to the climax is worth dwelling on - it is a Furtwangler-like indulgence. The end was massively scarred for me. Its exhausting enough to listen to this work without the conductor exercising his prowess just for the sake of it. A grisly and deeply dissatisfying experience.

Symphony No 6
San Francisco Symphony/Tilson-Thomas

This live performance made in 2003 in Davies Hall in SF is not available on CD as far as I know and is my only indulgence in this list of recordings. Tilson Thomas isn't a conductor you would associate with Bruckner but I think temperamentally the Sixth suits him. It is certainly the Cinderella of the set and for a long time there was no competition amongst the recordings available with only Klemperer available and wide praised. I like the way he sweeps the music along occasionally cutting it off. But the SFS are such a fine band it is worth hearing them in anything especially with MTT at the helm.

This symphony is typical Bruckner but its on the extremes of his harmonic world - delivering exotic progress on what is a familiar journey. the English critic Donald Tovey wrote about this music at a time when Bruckner's music was deeply unfashionable in Britain and his analysis is superb and far-sighted. Bruckner orchestrates quite dramatically here: but the music carries none of the weighty portent of the material elsewhere in his canon.

Tilson Thomas guides the orchestra through the first movement with a relaxed grace - only tightening proceedings for the drum and brass outbursts. The drum led recapitulation is delivered with a tender pause just to diffuse some of its martial quality.

It might be argued that the slow movement is the emotional epicentre of all Bruckner symphonies. In the Sixth symphony it is also the musical centre too. MTT is dangerously slow make the music almost abstract in its introduction to a tune which will melt your heart. Tovey speaks of shimmering Homeric seas at this point and there is no better illustration to be used. The harmonic world here is novel and so is Bruckner's language and Tilson Thomas takes them to new limits. Its is precise and yet languid like a slow dancer. And the drum and bass led figure (not not THAT sort of drum and bass) which could be summoned from Wagner, Brahms or some such is put to great utility by Bruckner. The climax and end of this movement are divinely handled by Tilson Thomas and his orchestra. The coda has a simplicity of utterance and humanity we might associated with Wagner but it has a humility which is Bruckner's own. MTT stretches its pauses but reveals a beauty in its final pages that many composer's struggle to achieve. It's not nuanced, heartbreaking or portentous - its is just sublime music - breathtakingly simple, respectfully realised and beautifully played.

The scherzo is rumbustious - the moment of reverence has passed. Unlike its predecessors it isn't lumpy. Its smiles and has a certain tongue in cheek from the Austrian composer for the music forms around him. So with a smile MTT and the SFS deliver a colourful pageant of sound and dance in the manner of Dvorak I often think. The Trio is delicately handled - by both composer and conductor.

The Finale only needs a few moments to catch light and the effect is rather immediate. In Bruckner's world the sexual metaphor is always a dangerous one (given his unfulfilled preoccupation with young women) but I'm going to play with it here. There is, at least, a game of hide and seek here, MTT makes the second subject beguiling and innocent. Its confrontations with the main tune with its panting brass chorales and sawing strings give us the basis for a different kind of Bruckner experience which take s the twee we've heard elsewhere and subverst it into the coy, the knowingly innocent. So from the lofty higher thoughts of the slow movement we have moved to a genial and mischievous world of human antics. But leaving that notion to one side for a moment - Tilson Thomas paces this movements beautifully taking it out of the usual fast barking brass/slow melting strings formulaic approach. And Bruckner doesn't hang round here either: the material is tersely expressed and full of joys if not excitement too. The rush too end tickles the ribs and pulls the material together with concision we haven't heard before. The woodwind may protest but the strong armed guy plucks up his fair maid in the end and of they go to play in the fairground. Its very obviously not Bruckner's way in earlier or later symphonies: so its a pleasure to hear a conductor bring the fresh vigorous frivolous and utterly human side of Bruckner out so well. The return of the opening movement chorale signals the end of the movement: but MTT seems to go a little awry here - its of no great matter since the heart of this work lies locked deep in the Homeric seas.


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