Our Time Has Come
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 25
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 4
Daniel Barenboim (piano and conductor)
"Let no one stay away for fear of Bruckner"
George A. Leighton
December 2, 1932
On one of his conducting tours of Russia, Gustav Mahler wished to honor his mentor Anton Bruckner with a performance of his Symphony # 4. At the last, however, he was persuaded by the local concert management that the audience would never stand for such music and he substituted Haydn's "Drumroll" Symphony. He did manage to conduct this imaginative work once in the hinterlands, mounting the Carnegie Hall premiere of the piece with the New York Philharmonic in 1910. Although the American premiere had taken place thirteen years earlier, with Theodore Thomas and his orchestra, which would evolve soon thereafter into the Chicago Symphony, the performance history of Bruckner's masterworks had already encountered the rocky road which would be its path for one hundred years. Mahler's own auditory essays struggled down a similar byway throughout the first half of the twentieth century and encountered much resistance in their composer's lifetime. Well aware of the public's resistance but even more convinced of their place in music history, Mahler was fond of saying "our time will come" and predicting that his teacher and he would someday mount their rightful places in Western music's pantheon. Certainly Mahler has now become enshrined, but Bruckner?
The "Romantic" Symphony is in many ways the most accessible of the Upper Austrian's output, filled as it is with programmatic images of chivalric times, peasant tunes and hunting horns. It is Bruckner's "Pastorale", with a vague sense of connection between sound and mental picture (the endearing composer once said that he had a program for the last movement but had forgotten it). Its regal brass evoke a medieval landscape of ceremony in much the same manner as Shakespeare's great speeches in the history plays and the listener can sit back and enjoy an evening dream complete with knights and fair maidens, tournaments and heralds. Harmonically the piece is daring, befitting Bruckner's undying devotion for Wagner, who had recently accepted the dedication of the Linz composer's Third Symphony. But Bruckner was a man out of time, a religious man in an age of apostasy, and he quickly earned a reputation for mysticism and longwindedness which has haunted him into the present new century.
Certainly many great conductors have tried to carry Bruckner's wartorn banner forward. The personal friends of Mahler, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, kept the flame alive during the lean years of the 1920's and '30's and, ironically, the meister's popularity with another Austrian, Adolf Hitler, which led to enforced deification in Central Europe, only served to diminish his appeal in England and America. It is only in the past thirty years that both Bruckner and Mahler have become "acceptable" to the general public and it seems that the teacher is still nowhere near as popular as the student. The number of symphonies programmed each year is illustrative, as Mahler has become a staple in the American concert hall while Bruckner remains a welcome diversion, even a rarity. This is why a wonderful performance like last evening's Chicago concert is so important. Although the usually steady CSO trumpets were tentative last night, the overall brass section, particularly the lower instruments, showed once again why they are the best in the world. The Chicago sound has not varied much with the ascendancy of Barenboim; the brass is still the star and the strings are competent but not lush. The tempi last night were on the slow end of the spectrum and may reflect the Brucknerian world's recent espousal of the aesthetic of Tintner and Celibedache but Barenboim kept his phrasing very broad to help justify the unusual performance length. Special mention goes to Dale Clevenger, whose clarion horn thrilled throughout (he received the warmest applause from the crowd) and to Barenboim himself, who stayed involved the entire time (I sometimes find him to be a lazy, drifting podium presence) and wrung every last drop of feeling from this enormous experience.
A composer much more difficult to conduct, Mozart did not fare anywhere near as well as his countryman. We were subjected to a routine performance of this chestnut (surprisingly not heard at Carnegie Hall before 1944 when Schnabel and Szell teamed with the Philharmonic) with no sense of delicacy either from the small orchestral forces (with flubbing trumpets) or from the pianist who misguidedly (and rather rudely) kept his back to us the entire time. Gone were the light touch and the sense of wonder; in their place were only routine and a shade of pomposity. At the end of the day the complex scores of Bruckner are much easier to put over than the genuine simplicity of Mozart. I longed for the sensitivity of a Perahia or an Uchida at the keyboard and some sense of grace from the band. Since my thoughts were of Mahler, I couldn't help but reflect on his reputation as the foremost Classical interpreter of his era (his dying word was "Mozart!"). Luckily last evening's leadfooted effort was swallowed by the intense majesty of the Bruckner and we all went home inspired.
Frederick L. Kirshnit