Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Orchestra Wellington’s triumphant concert of two last completed works by great composers

By , 25/05/2019

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei

Mozart: Symphony No 41 in C, ‘Jupiter’
Bruckner: Symphony No 8 in C minor (1890 version)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 25 May, 7:30 pm

This promised to be a major concert, and as soon as the first arresting sounds of the Jupiter Symphony filled the MFC, I felt assured that it was probably the most important concert of Orchestra Wellington’s year.

And so I scanned the spaces above the orchestra to assure myself that it was being recorded; and I was dismayed to see no sign of RNZ Concert’s microphones. In the light of the broadcaster’s routine recordings and broadcasts of the Auckland Philharmonia’s performances every Thursday evening, this struck me as an extraordinary decision. Is it another facet of RNZ’s announced plans last year to shift half its operations to Auckland in the interests of balance of some sort? Differences in performance standards between the two orchestras are becoming harder and harder to discern; is RNZ oblivious to the need for all Government operations to avoid the proliferation of activities in Auckland to help achieve more balanced growth nationally? It would be better if Radio New Zealand were to re-establish a presence in Christchurch, if balance really matters.

The Jupiter Symphony
Mozart’s last symphony (that was the concert’s theme, Bruckner’s eighth was his last completed work) is pretty universally considered one of his greatest works. There are endless ways to approach a piece of music, and even more in the case of works of genius such as Bruckner’s most important symphonies: the emphasis in the first movement was on its energy and its rich and elaborate evolution as an inspired and magnificently constructed masterpiece. An emphatic pulse dominated most of the first and last movements though Bruckner never allows uniform tempo or dynamics to dominate any movement. Speed is not the essence of greatness and that was soon clear when the contrasting second theme arrived, quite markedly more discreet and it was these dynamic and tempo contrasts that lent special interest to this performance. Marc Taddei took care with the scale of the sounds, limiting the strings to 10, 8, 6, 4 3, and used baroque timpani, vividly exhibited by Dominic Jacquemard.

The orchestra next showed its refinement in the slow movement where it’s possible to surprise an audience with the most secretive approach to the lovely melodies that emerge as if from profound meditation, with such gestures as sharp quasi-staccato chords from strings occasionally punctuating the quiet. Then the minuet, third movement was played with a brisk, quite danceable rhythm with a strong first beat, that with its rising motif seemed to express a kind of pleading.

The last movement is marked Molto allegro, but is often played rather spaciously in response to the complex contrapuntal interplay that illustrates an aspect of Mozart’s genius that he had not previously explored very much. Other performances that have given more space to the fascinating emergence of Mozart’s handling of the several themes that tumble upon one another and create a marvellous exhilarating experience. The last movement usually takes about 10 minutes, and while I didn’t time it, this seemed to have been despatched in a bit less time.

However, in terms of scrupulous attention to dynamics, the hushed opening phrases and the sudden retreats into meditative passages, the secretive feeling created at the approach of each phase of the movement’s evolution, one was simply electrified throughout. Then there was the sheer excellence and accuracy of the lively orchestral playing and Taddei’s very conspicuous attention to the roles of every section and solo instrument, not to mention the overall architecture of the symphony.

Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony
As if a fine performance of the Jupiter was not enough genius for one concert, Taddei filled out the theme of ‘last rites’ (not his words) with, I might surmise, the greatest of the other last symphonies (other than Beethoven’s) in his judgement: one more than twice as long as Mozart’s. It must also have been a close contest between Brahms’s 4th and Mahler’s 9th (we are speaking of ‘last completed works’: both Bruckner’s ninth and Mahler’s tenth were incomplete).

The orchestra had been expanded to cope with Bruckner’s demands: strings descending from 13, 11, 10…; three each of woodwinds; eight horns, four of which doubled on Wagner tubas (all on the right); three each of trumpets and trombones, three harps (an uncommon sight), totalling about 80. Fewer strings than the NZSO would have mustered it’s true, but one would have to be rather pedantic and gifted with uncommonly acute hearing to perceive it, let alone complain.

The last performance of the Eighth, this time of the first version of 1887, was Simone Young’s with the NZSO in August 2015. It was reviewed by Middle C.
See more details in the Appendix

Most of Bruckner’s symphonies have interesting, controversial histories; the result of the scale and structure and their unconventional musical character, quite strongly influenced by Wagner; but more especially as a result of the extensive revisions that he made, usually as a result of criticism by conductors, critics, colleagues and friends.

Not everyone is interested in the tortured history and context of the eighth; I am.

Bruckner finished the Eighth in 1887, but it was neither published nor performed then as conductor Hermann Levi, to whom Bruckner sent it, said that he couldn’t ‘make it his own’.
See Appendices

Bruckner ran into further critical hostility at the first performance. The most notorious was from the Brahms-devoted (and therefore antipathetic towards Bruckner) Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick who had routinely attacked Bruckner’s earlier works.
See more detail in Appendices

Orchestra Wellington’s performance was of a monumental yet totally absorbing character. Considering that this is Wellington’s ‘second’ orchestra, with a number of extra players, the performance was tight and cohesive, full of energy, and thoroughly deserving of recording. While there was singularly fine playing from most instruments in solo passages, a lovely subtle solo oboe for example, and evidence of very effective rehearsal in the clarity and richness of string ensemble; and Dominic Jacquemard’s excellent timpani was often thrillingly conspicuous even if occasionally a little too prominent. The fine body of horns, four of them doubling on Wagner tubas, always created rich, heart-warming choruses.

The Scherzo is untypical of the usual bubbly wake-up after the ‘boring’ slow movement (well, this is before the slow movement). The outer layers are both richly inventive even though built on typically Brucknerian repetitive themes, far from merely jolly, superficial fillers. It was not only a journey into the sunlight but a wonderful, emotionally enriching experience that to my ears expressed the best of both worlds: sparkle and the most opulent of horn-led passages through the steady triple rhythm that made this a Scherzo that was far more than an episode to entertain the cloth-eared who need overtly jolly music.

The middle section, Trio – Langsam, lasting about five minutes, provided a perfect space in which to relish this variation on the homogeneous character of the whole hour-and-a-quarter-long symphony; much of it resting purely to strings with subtle, discreet horns, trumpets, woodwinds.

The most transfixing, spell-binding movement is of course the great Adagio, Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend, which lasts about half an hour. Here was the full justification for the eight horns and the frequent substitution of four of them by Wagner tubas delivering long-breathed, elegiac chorales, never hinting at anything overtly religious in spite of Bruckner’s profound religious convictions. I think that perhaps here is best found the beauty of a quartet of Wagner tubas, including in Wagner’s own use of them. The magic of three harps could be understood here too, though it did help to be able to see the three players together. The slow passage towards the ultimate brass-rich climax was paced beautifully, with the arrival of cymbals and triangle, quickly subsiding with the return of the gentlest, aching four-note, descending melody from horns. I should have asked for an encore.

But the last movement, Feierlich, nicht schnell, announced by arresting demi-semi-quavers from strings or brass only momentarily changed the scene. It’s followed by what could pass as an extension of the Adagio of several minutes before the somewhat astonishing, spell-binding, timpani-led episode. There were moments when, uncharacteristically, I did feel that passages demanding opulent string playing could have benefitted from more players, but it didn’t detract from the gravity and grandeur of the music during that episode; generally the strings more than adequately balanced the sounds of the brass.

Of the gigantic finale Bruckner is alleged to have said: “Hallelujah!… The Finale is the most significant movement of my life.”

The near capacity audience in the Michael Fowler Centre might have said the same if it had occurred to them. Though there was long and rapturous applause I was surprised that no one stood to acknowledge Marc Taddei’s achievement. That he conducted the work without the score might not have been so remarkable in the Jupiter Symphony, but it was in the case of this masterpiece nearly three times as long.

 

APPENDICES

The NZSO’s first performance of the Eighth was from Franz-Paul Decker in 1985 (the orchestra had lived nearly 40 years without it!), and there have been performances by Matthias Bamert in 1999 and Laurence Renes in 2007; and there was an Auckland-only performance under Heinz Wallberg in 1991. As mentioned above, Simone Young’s 2015 performances were of the original version.

Rejection and revisions
When Bruckner invited him to conduct the symphony (he had conducted the hugely successful first performance of the Seventh) Hermann Levi replied that he found it “impossible to perform … in its current form. As much as the themes are magnificent and direct, their working-out seems to me dubious; indeed, I consider the orchestration quite impossible. I just can’t make it my own!” He added: “Don’t lose your courage, take another look at your work … maybe a reworking can achieve something”.

Those criticisms led to a tortuous series of revisions, cuts and ‘corrections’, even the insertion of new music, that have provided rich material for scholarly examination and created a confusing range of possible performance options.

He reworked it by making cuts, enriching the orchestration, and writing a new sombre, spiritually subdued ending for the first movement, “with a deathly fade to silence”, as Alex Ross wrote. He submitted a second version in 1890 for publication. It took two years to find a publisher, in 1892, and it was premiered under Hans Richter later that year.

The first version was longer than the revised 1890 one, though not all recorded performances reflect that: Eliahu Inbal’s performance of the 1887 version, which I have, runs 74.83 minutes (but Sergiu Celibidache’s wonderful performance of the Novak 1890 version lasts an hour and forty minutes!). The 1887 version, which was premiered after Novak’s publication in 1972, was conducted by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler in 1973 (his biography of Bruckner is extremely perceptive and absorbing and thoroughly worth looking for); the earlier version has now had many performances, including by Georg Tintner, Michael Gielen, Kent Nagano, Franz Welser-Möst and Simone Young.

Reception of the first performance
Hanslick wrote of the symphony’s first performance of the 1890 revision, in Vienna in 1892 not quite as savagely as he had of earlier works; he noted generously that it was ‘interesting in detail, but strange as a whole, indeed repellent’. Bruckner’s admirer Hugo Wolf however wrote that the symphony was ‘the work of a giant’ that ‘surpasses the other symphonies of the master in intellectual scope, awesomeness, and greatness’.

Quotes on the critical treatment of Bruckner
Alex Ross in a review of the Eighth Symphony in The New Yorker in 2011, wrote:

“Bruckner, with his vast, slow-moving structures and relentlessly sombre tone, can seem impassive, even inhuman. He has always aroused as much distrust as love. Mocking Bruckner is a hoary pastime, going back to the days when the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick dismissed him as a proponent of “nightmare-hangover style.” There is also the matter of Bruckner’s posthumous link to Nazism; Hitler embraced Bruckner as a German national hero and used bits of his music as sonic décor at the Nuremberg rallies. Although Bruckner did little to encourage such treatment—the mainstay of his world view was devout Catholicism, not pan-German nationalism—the association lingers in the public mind.”

A Guardian article (Tom Service, December 2013) summarises what the author suggests should be the listener’s reaction:

“This is a piece that is attempting something so extraordinary that if you’re not prepared to encounter its expressive demons, or to be shocked and awed by the places Bruckner’s imagination takes you, then you’re missing out on the essential experience of the symphony. If you think of Bruckner only as a creator of symphonic cathedrals of mindful – or mindless, according to taste – spiritual contemplation, who wields huge chunks of musical material around like an orchestral stone mason with implacable, monumental perfection, then you won’t hear the profoundly disturbing drama of what he’s really up to. That unsettling darkness is sounded right at the start of this symphony. Instead of setting out on a journey in which the outcome is certain, in which everything is its rightful place in the symphonic, tonal, and structural universe, Bruckner builds his grandest symphonic edifice on musical quicksand.”

Another colourful characterisation quoted by The New Yorker in 2014, from the 1923 book Musical Chronicle by critic Paul Rosenfeld, wrote that Bruckner, “a balding Austrian church organist, echoed not so much the elegance of ‘waltz-blooded Vienna’ as ‘the uncouthness of the Allemanic tribesmen, his ancestors, who smeared their long hair with butter and brewed thick black beers’.”

 

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