Both Sides of the Pfennig
Franz Schubert: Symphony # 8
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 9
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt (conductor)
“…The Bruckner Scherzo, new to these concerts, is a pleasing addition to the repertoire; its lightness and grace has a certain suggestion of the Mendelssohn of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music.”
Frances D. Perkins, New York Herald Tribune, July, 1941
The lifetime of Ludwig van Beethoven spanned, through the sheer force of his genius, the transition from the genteel world of courtly music as exemplified by Haydn to the dynamic universe of unbridled emotion unleashed by the Romantic movement. Beethoven’s innovations dragged music kicking and screaming into a new era of exploration and a deeper level of meaning. Another existence, lived entirely within the temporal confines of that of Beethoven, was that of Franz Peter Schubert and this experience was equally as catalytic for music history, but in a much subtler manner. Schubert virtually invented the lied and left its greatest examples as his legacy. Additionally, his experiments in the nature of form forever changed the listener’s perception of music, moving headlong into a totally inner-directed vocabulary. His piano sonatas destroy the tradition of linear time and uniform metrics, the appreciative hearer as pleasurably lost as a traveler in the winding streets and alleys of Venice. His ”Unfinished” Symphony is anything but, rather it is a redefinition of the architectural grace of the standard Classical orchestral essay. Its liquid form allows for deep emotion and this was evident last evening in a disquietingly Januarian concert by Mendelssohn’s own Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, with its American born but European raised conductor, Herbert Blomstedt. The Schubert was notable for its powerful expressions of anguish, befitting Maestro’s spoken dedication to the victims of September 11th prior to the program, but was more memorable for its exasperating lack of united ensemble play. Each and every entrance was ragged; up to ten different hemidemisemidownbeats were chosen by the individual instrumentalists, creating not just rhythmical, but also intonational, chaos. The stops were even more frustrating than the starts and all of this cacophony was underlined by Mr. Blomstedt’s decidedly romantic approach to its conducting. Making much use of heart-on-sleeve rubato might have worked just a tad better if these forces could have at least listened to one another and played in unison. Carnegie acoustics are nothing if not clean; this version sounded more like a performance from inside the Lincoln Tunnel.
Anton Bruckner’s Symphony # 9 is also “unfinished” and yet expresses in its very incompleteness the humility and awe of its extremely religious composer. The final reward for all of this earthly suffering is only experienced after death; the anticipated (and almost unconsciously experienced) finale must remain forever unwritten. Misguided attempts to substitute his Te Deum for the missing ending speak to the lack of understanding of some otherwise cogent scholars. The symphony’s two outer slow movements, along with the adagio from the mighty 8th, may be the most intensely emotional music in the entire repertoire. What was most disappointing last night was that interpretively this performance had the potential to be great, even revelatory. In many places, the interplay of the strings was spectacular, inner voices coming to the fore as in very few live versions that I have experienced, the overall tutti sound beautiful and solid. Blomstedt allows each instrumental line to breathe and grow within the orchestral whole in a distinctly impressive manner (he was the best at bringing out the hidden talents of the San Francisco Symphony in his days at Davies) and even maintains expertly that most delicate of balances: the organism as a whole intones one mood while internal soloists and scattered dissenters explore other, wholly differing musical paths at the same moment. Although I was less than pleased with the lack of dramatic intensity in the second movement, the cumulative effect of so much experience and scholarship should have been highly satisfying.
Except that this colossal beast couldn’t get out of its own way. A few bleats and brays are not the issue here but rather a consistent pattern of disorganized slovenliness. Entrances were almost systematically deconstructed as if they were designed to be a linear progression of notes rather than an accomplished totality. Not only could these people not stop together, but a positively ugly residue of overtonal jetsam hung over the hall at many points which were designed by the composer as silent respites of vigil (it is tempting to think that Mr. Blomstedt was endeavoring to recreate the sonic atmosphere of the organ loft at St. Florian, but I hardly think so). After a while, one needed to listen to this bizarre performance in a bifurcated manner. On the one hand, we were feted with sophisticated, even brilliant, interpretation; on the other, we suffered with a performance embarrassing even by conservatory standards. Where was that German discipline about which I have heard so much? Ultimately this concert was, as Mann used to say, heartfelt but inept.
One of the most prized of my possessions which graces my library is a complete set of the periodical Chord and Discord, a gift from the Bruckner Society of America. When perusing its issues from the 1930’s and ‘40’s, one is struck by the infrequency of performances of Bruckner’s symphonies in the States. By contrast, this season I am scheduled to hear three interpretations of the 9th alone. Much progress has been made, but the work of the Brucknerian proselytizer is still unfinished.
Frederick L. Kirshnit