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A bold choice

Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern
09/15/2011 -  
Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser: Overture and Bacchanale
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 WAB 106 (Nowak edition)

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

R. Chailly (© Gert Mothes)

Yet another Bruckner symphony brought to the Lucerne Festival by a top orchestra and respected conductor, this time the Leipzigers with Chailly. This time Bruckner’s problematic and puzzling Sixth but before that, a very short first-half.

It is always somewhat of a conundrum what work to perform in the first half of a concert with a weighty symphony as the main work. Some symphonies, notably Bruckner’s Eighth and the Ninth have sufficient gravitas to stand on their own and then certainly benefit from their solo status. Chailly chose some fifteen minutes of Wagner to start, musically relevant at least.

Bruckner was only 11 years younger than Wagner, but as a composer he belonged almost to a different generation. He always looked up to Wagner, revered his works, and regarded him more like a teacher than a colleague. First and foremost Bruckner was, in his early years, an organist and teacher and, only occasionally, a composer. That all changed radically when, nearly 40 years old, he heard Tannhäuser for the first time. So Chailly gave us the Overture and Bacchanale (the deliberately slushy Venusberg music), in the Viennese version of 1875 rather than the much earlier Paris version of 1861. This later version attempts to bind the Overture to the Bacchanale as though it is one piece, which it audibly isn’t, and the link does not, in my view, work well. The Leipzigers nevertheless produced a grandiose outpouring of central European sound, Chailly exposing the multifarious layers of Wagner’s skilful writing. The piece remained however a “bleeding chunk” and it seemed that hardly had we sat down, that we were out in the Foyers again to await the main meal.

Bruckner’s Sixth is a bold choice of work (it did not fill the hall), sitting in between the “easier” early symphonies Nos. 3, 4 and 5 and the mature and more impressive Nos. 7, 8 and unfinished 9. (We shall ignore, as most others do, symphony numbers 0, 00, 1 and 2). Bruckner’s Sixth is rarely performed and one can see, or rather hear, why: its rhythmic complexity, the constant typically Brucknerian stop-starts, the abrupt interchanges between brass outbursts and lyrical strings simply do not aid easy listening. That said, Chailly and his orchestra gave a cogent if not particularly inspiring performance; the reading was too measured. When thrilling conclusions came, at the end of the first and last movements, they were suitably blazing. The Leipzigers have a fine brass section.

In the Adagio, music of great composure, the strings were exemplary and highest praise goes to the lament of the principal clarinettist, swaying inordinately – I cannot give his name as the programme, unusually, failed to list the members of the orchestra.

The Scherzo was the most successful movement, featuring the usual Bruckner pattern of rhythmic outer passages with uplifting brass fanfares and a gentle string passage in between, this time pizzicato.

The concert gave a welcome opportunity to hear a good performance of a lesser-played and enigmatic Bruckner symphony. That it failed to convince this evening was not, I think, the fault of the orchestra or its conductor. It probably needs a great performance to bring out its subtleties.

John Rhodes



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