Waiting for Bruckner

Christoph von Dohnányi, guest conductor
New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center
Friday, December 11, 2009 at 8:00 PM

MOZART | Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. Soloists: Glenn Dicterow (violin), Cynthia Phelps (viola)
BRUCKNER | Symphony No. 4

I dream of the day when a full cycle of Bruckner’s symphonies can come to New York. The way that Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler cycles can be expected to happen now and then (and have happened within this year or will next, with Barenboim/Boulez and the Berlin Staatskapelle, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as well as his own Budapest FO, Botstein and the American SO). Sibelius and Shostakovich deserve such studious treatment, too, of course—perhaps Tchaikovsky also?—though it doesn’t even happen as regularly as one’d want and expect for the symphonies of Schubert and Dvořák. For someone like Haydn the very dreaming is hardly tenable, and the experiencing might in fact become tedious, whatever one’s receptive stamina, under conditions of such serial completism.

But among all these master-workers of symphonic form, Anton Bruckner remains the least performed in the US. In New York he appeared on the programs of only three major orchestral performances in 2009—two at Carnegie Hall and one at Avery Fisher: the Ninth with Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic in February, the Eighth with Haitink and the Chicago Symphony in May, and the Fourth with von Dohnányi and the New York Philharmonic in three iterations this past weekend. (Last month the Bruckner Orchestra Linz performed the original 1874 version of the Fourth at Avery Fisher as well, but Bruckner is what that ensemble mostly does. Next spring here there is only one program I’m aware of: the Seventh with Masur and again the NY Phil, with a four-night run.)

I attended both of those American orchestras’ Bruckner concerts in NYC this year. Bernard Haitink did lead the CSO to a heroic all-out effort, drawing out some harmonies that exfoliated the piece of its (relative) familiarity, and there were especially stirring contributions from the cello section. But the Chicago’s venerable brasses often pummeled out of the way or trammeled underfoot other crucial textures. These observations vaguely particularize because the performance did as well—rather than bringing to life the cascading cathedral of the whole. Still, all hope for Bruckner in America will likely have to remain with the CSO, for heritage’s sake and because it still programs the composer several times a year. (Offering some foretaste of his imminent reign there (not here), Muti actually did the Second Symphony with the CSO in October. Spurned from the start by Wagner and by the VPO, which refused to perform it until Bruckner got his own financing and hired them to, when does this work ever get played nowadays?)

Though led by another European conductor long-familiar with Bruckner’s oeuvre, a familiarity documented by respectable if not revelatory recordings, the NY Phil’s Fourth was more disappointing. Despite considerable perseverance on the part of the musicians and collective excitability during climactic moments, this performance fell well short of welding and swelling as one. Problems of internal rhythm were audible throughout. Strings in the first movement sounded hesitant, as if waiting for those annunciations Bruckner gave to the brass before daring to join in as written. Consequently their crucial tremolos did not keep pace with and keep pressure on the ritardando of the five-note descending motif. Things got better in the second movement but coordination remained fuzzy during barer textures, and here it was the brass that stalled. The dance of the Trio sounded stiff, swingless. The orchestra was at its best when the score crescendoed to summits of volume and fervor. The ability to rally under these circumstances saved the Finale. The only thing one can do during an unsatisfying Bruckner performance is to trace along mentally what mechanically transpires—using the listening to internalize the score a little better. This performance managed to break up my inner hum-along all too rarely.

One cannot necessarily tell much from a conductor’s gestures—so much having already been rehearsed, one assumes, so much having gotten tacitly understood—but given the worrying proceedings it was perplexing to see von Dohnányi issue gestures that looked by turns lackadaisical and inconsequentially surgical. Had he not come with a strong idea of how things should go overall? Or—speculating from his occasional shuddering of hands that seemed to request a thicker rumbling of sound (a rare conspicuous manifestation of intent), and from the fact that none then followed—had he given up on this orchestra? Or, given the NY Phil’s reputation for holding back when led by conductors it doesn’t take to, had this orchestra given up on him? Or did getting Bruckner this far actually feel, for anyone involved, good enough?

The Sinfonia Concertante was great to hear as always, and made for canny programming, as its lively beauty could always be counted on to focus an audience’s attention, here readying it for Bruckner. Soloists Glenn Dicterow and Cynthia Phelps, who emerged from their usual roles as the Philharmonic’s concertmaster and principal violist, were admirable for their individual gifts—Phelps’s playing was contemplative and had a lovely velveteen tone, Dicterow’s was blither and fluent (though a very few high notes got a teensy tinny)—as well for as their meticulous synchronization. What their collaboration lacked was the sense of inexorable conversational relay that is the motor of this work’s momentum. Mozart’s writing virtually guaranteed, between the two instrumentalists, spirited scoopings up of phrases and gracious deliveries back of phrases. Friday night’s performance cruised along, but suggested a more binary procedure of dutiful (perhaps habitually collegial?) turn-taking.

[The NYT review was 70% conductor intro, 30% uninvested praise.]

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