Sunday 8 March 2009

Festival 2006, Part III - The Bruckner Cycle

As promised, in part three of my series rounding up the 2006 Edinburgh festival, which took place before the founding of this website, I tackle the Bruckner symphony cycle. In contrast to the Beethoven, which was one conductor, only two orchestras and out of chronological sequence, each Bruckner had a different conductor, there were many orchestras and the programme ran in order from one to nine (the zeroth and study symphonies were excluded).

The concerts all started at 9.30pm and so some (such as the Blomstedt eighth) ran to nearly 11pm. Again, like the Beethoven, it provided an opportunity to savour each symphony in isolation (or nearly so - often the 'masterwork' that McMaster had programmed in between left one a little musically full up).

As before, I originally wrote the quoted comments on Naim Audio forum. Similarly, I have sometimes added new comments (italicised and in square brackets). I have also made corrections to one or two typos, or added a full name here or there, and these changes are not indicated.

The cycle started on Tuesday 15th August 2006, already that night we'd had Beethoven's Erioca and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, so one could all too easily have been tapped out. Fortunately, Sakari Oramo was on hand to wake us up:

However, the highlight of the evening was !SHOCK! not Mackerras! Instead, a disappointingly sold Bruckner 1 from Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. I have always been rather fond of this work and they played it to perfection. Oramo's energy on the podium is quite something and the way he held the tension in the work was just wonderful. I strongly recommend tuning in when BBC Radio 3 broadcast it in September (the other Bruckner performers now have a very tough act to follow).

I'd also add that I've never before (or since, for that matter) seen someone quite so hyperactive on the podium. He leapt around like a man possessed, arms waving in almost a blur, like a caricature. It calls to mind a comment by Mackerras some time ago that some conductors do a lot, others do a little, yet both methods can be equally effective (contrast Oramo with, say, Volkov).

Speaking of whom, while Ilan Volkov has had great success with Bruckner, his reading of the second wasn't quite so brilliant. It's worth noting that Thursday 17th's concert was one of only two occasions when the numbers of the Bruckner and Beethoven matched up.

This evening's second concert was a touch disappointing in contrast. Volkov and the BBC Scottish were on duty for Bruckner two, so I had high hopes as this team have impressed me greatly ever since I first heard them at a festival concert a few years back when they played Bluebeard's Castle.

And they played well tonight - some of the string playing and the woodwind (especially the bassoons) was wonderful. However, as whole, it didn't quite seem to hang together. Perhaps because this was the earlier version (where Bruckner placed the movements andante-scherzo) or perhaps because unlike the four other people I was with, I had not managed to have a glass of wine (or two) before hand. Interestingly though, of the 3 recordings I have, I notice both Jochum and Solti play it the same way with only Tintner choosing the later version [I no longer have the Tintner cycle, on Naxos, as I found it very dull]. I shall have to have another listen to Jochum some time and see how he pulls the work off [I still haven't got round to this yet...].

Certainly, it lacked the visceral excitement that Oramo and his band bought on Tuesday (but, in fairness, I think only part of that was down to Oramo, the rest to Bruckner himself).

Again it was disappointingly sold - I expect because the work is less known - it will be interesting to see how the crowds are for 4, 7, 8 and 9. I hope Runnicles gets a good one for 6 (which is one of my favourites). Then again, there seems to be a strong negative correlation between the size of the audience and the quality of their behaviour!

Saturday 19th brought Scotland's other big orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, for the third symphony:

Later in the evening we had Bruckner's 3rd from Herbig and the RSNO. I barely know the work but enjoyed it very much (even if I am finding the RSNO just too loud in places). I had felt that hearing the cycle might be a problem and things might get samey, but interestingly I'm not; indeed, I think it's remarkably illustrative of the way he developed.

The first Bruckner of week two came from the RSNO again. On Tuesday 22nd August the fourth symphony was preceded by Beethoven's sixth and Brahms' first piano concerto (from Goode, Fischer and the Budapest Festival orchestra):

I'm also wondering if 3 in a night is a mistake. Last night finished with the RSNO and Deneve playing Bruckner 4. It was an obscure edition of the score and, in my view, justly so [According to the programme, the Bruckner-Schalk-Lowe revision 1886-7]. I think any performance of the 4th is hard as in some ways the finest tune is the scherzo. Still, if that is what you come out humming, something has gone wrong [Contrast this with Jansons recent effort with the Bavarians].

None the less, it was interesting and I'm very glad to have heard it. More interesting to me though, is how the orchestra played for Deneve. I don't know if he's simply not a Brucknerian [Certainly the orchestra have played superbly for him in other repertoire], or perhaps the orchestra is getting Bruckner fatigue from its rather heavy schedule, but up until last night I was thinking I had them rather unfairly placed 3rd in the list of Scottish orchestras in my head [The more eagle-eyed may note this as being somewhat hypocritical given my rant against the Gramophone's list. I no longer keep any such list in my head.]. However, here again there was some rather patchy playing at times (including a very poor trumpet entry and a flautist who didn't quite seem there).

It also marked an interesting contrast to Mackerras. I may have said above that I don't think I've ever seen an orchestra as ruluctant to take a bow when instructed as the SCO are for him in the Beethoven (a former professional musician I know says they only do this for conductors they like). Interestingly, most orchestras you see go some way in this direction (if not to the SCO's recent lengths). Last night, almost before he had gestured they were on their feet.

Thursday the 24th, and it was again three in a night. Again, the first two protagonists had been Mackerras/SCO for Beethoven's fourth and Fischer/Budapest Festival for some Strauss. An ensemble new to the cycle then joined us for Bruckner's fifth:

However, 9:30 and Bruckner was wonderful. I think with the 5th we are into the area of symphonies I really love. The Rotterdam Philharmonic played wonderfully for Ingo Metzmacher and I was glad to be a little further back (some of these Bruckners have been so loud my ears have hurt ever so slightly). I love the way Bruckner builds this work and the way that towards the end so many of the themes from earlier movements make a return. If I had a criticism, it would be that some of the pauses could have been held a little better - there was perhaps not the absolute tension that sometimes is there. Still, after the 1st of Oramo, I have enjoyed this the most of the cycle. I cannot wait for Runnicles in 6 this evening.

Sure enough, come Saturday 26th August, Donald Runnicles did not disappoint with the sixth (perhaps my favourite of all the symphonies). Interestingly, Runnicles was also to be seen in the grand circle of the Usher Hall, listening to Mackerras's thrilling reading of Beethoven seven with the rest of us. Sadly, he was just too quick for me in leaving to obtain an autograph. It would be fascinating to know what he thought of the performance.

Next up came Runnicles and the BBC Scottish for Bruckner 6 (interestingly, or perhaps not, Runnicles had earlier been in the audience for the Beethoven). In some ways, this only heightened my regret that the Orchestra of St Luke's weren't able to make it.

He went at the Bruckner in a way I wasn't really expecting: this was not the biting tension of Herbig in the third, but something altogether more subtle yet no less compelling. The adagio in particular was beautifully lyrical.

There was a lovely moment in the finale when Runnicles was almost dancing on the podium and one could hear the orchestra dancing with him (this in marked contrast to some of the performances I've heard in recent days when the connection between the movements of the conductor and the sound heard is altogether more vague).

For me it was the highlight of the Bruckners so far (and well worth tuning in for when broadcast). And further indication, if any was needed, of what a fine conductor Runnicles is and why it's a crying shame he works so much in the states (well, good if your live out there, obviously, but I'm being selfish) and doesn't have a bigger discography [As readers will know, this is changing for the better, for those of us in Scotland anyway]. The orchestra seemed to have greatly enjoyed working with him too (they certain cheered and applauded him most enthusiastically).

It also served to indicate just how subjective these things can be - the power and impact that he conjured for the final bars was really something. But I was reminded that we'd heard the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra do the same piece last year, which prompted me to dig out my comments [see here for the full post]:

The second half was a good reading of Bruckner 6. Sadly the work suffers from the same problem as much of his writing, namely it gets a little repetitive at times, it is also one of his many works in which he neglected to save the best for last.

A year on and I find out how wrong I was - only going to show what a difference an interpretation can make.

The following day, Sunday 27th August, came the seventh and the return of the RSNO, this time with conductor Claus Peter Flor. I am not certain that the below represents an objective judgement. Already that evening we'd had a superb Beethoven 8th, followed by a magical and transcending performance of Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars.... Three in a night was certainly a mistake on that occasion:

And so to Bruckner. I'm no huge fan of the 7th (I think I prefer 6 or even 1) but it does have some lovely writing. And while Flor and the RSNO played very well (indeed, I have been struck how much better the orchestra have played for both their guests than they did for their chief conductor - see the 4th). However it lacked fire and didn't quite come off. Perhaps I am judging unfairly though, for whenever the music stopped it was the the Messiaen I could hear ringing in my mind.

The penultimate work made use of the Philharmonia, in town to play Beethoven's ninth two days later. On Wednesday 30th August they were joined by Herbert Blomstedt:

Later in the evening, Blomstedt led the Philharmonia in Bruckner 8. I must say, I found the playing a little ropey in places (strings and timpany were outstanding, but there were too many fluffed entries from the horns). I didn't really warm to Blomstedt's reading. The first two movements were nothing special one way or the other, but he really lost me in the third - all the beauty seemed to be lost and it was interminable [It was on the long side, as readings go, and would certainly not have fitted on one CD]. Indeed, the whole thing lacked tension. By the time the finale came, I must confess I was probably a little past caring. However, I was alone (save for the handful who had walked out [In fairness, this may have had more to do with the misleading programme which suggested all concerts in al three series lasted 'around an hour', which was sometimes off by more than half]), as everyone I went with loved it and the cheers rang out very loudly.

I wondered later how much of this is down to edition - he used the earlier Nowak (1887, I think [The programme states Bruckner-Schalk revision, 1890, ed Nowak]). My favourite reading of the work is from Furtwangler using the Haus edition which, it seems, is frowned upon these days. Then again, it strikes me that issues of edition alone shouldn't hold a work from being convincing. Either way, it makes me want to listen to the various ones I have on disk again [This I have done, and Furtwangler remains my favourite.].

The finale came on Friday 1st September and we were joined by another BBC orchestra, this time the London based BBC Symphony under Jiri Belohlavek:

The Bruckner series didn't end quite so convincingly. It was interesting to hear Belohlavek conducting the BBC Symphony (and I must say that I think the orchestra have been somewhat unfairly maligned in the press as they played well). However, his conducting suffered from many of the problems I noticed when he did Mahler 9 last year, albeit with the RSNO. The first 15 minutes or so didn't really hang together and thus the first movement dragged rather. The scherzo is one of Bruckner's finest, in my view, and they played it very well. As they did the lovely adagio, which I especially enjoy for all the Wagnerian 'influence', especially from Tristan.

So, was I right to attend all nine? I did miss a performance of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa that was, by all accounts, superb. It is also certainly the case that some nights would have been better without three works (and I wouldn't have traded the Messiaen for anything). Still, I'm glad to have heard the nine in concert like this. Mills, the new director, hasn't repeated these symphony cycles. A shame, since others are ripe for it (how about eight concerts of Schubert and Sibelius, if you count Kullervo, or a cycle of Dvorak?). The logistics were certainly tight and the hall was often not as full as it might have been and so perhaps the economics just don't work. Who knows, perhaps Mills may offer us something along these lines when he launches the 2009 programme in April...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bruckner is a great composer, and you are right in saying that his 1st symphony is a good one.

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