The Master Builder
Avery Fisher Hall
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 8
New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel (conductor)
Probably because I am just back from holiday in Florence and Venice, the relationship between music and architecture is fresh in my thoughts and, fortuitously, the first concert to lull me from my jet-lagged haze is the New York Philharmonic's pilgrimage to the vast cathedral which is the Bruckner 8th. Only an organist could have the mind for such a construction and only a man of great melodic invention and the capacity for seeing things whole could start with the clouds of the opening tremolos and end an hour and forty minutes later with the vast glory of God proclaimed so majestically and yet from such a simple perspective of humility. Bruckner was a great improviser and apparently toppled many magnificent houses of musical cards because of his torturously low self-image. Contemporary accounts rhapsodize over his synthesis of themes from the 8th and Siegfried's Funeral March and one can imagine the humble peasant building an entire world of rapture and apotheosis with his fingers blind instruments of his personal deity. Further, the byzantine plan of this symphony reaches back to the architectural scores of San Marco and to the choral works of the Linz master's beloved Schuetz. Although other symphonies rival this one in length, no orchestral work is so satisfying as an evening's complete presentation.
The Third is the "Wagner Symphony" and the Seventh includes the funereal music inspired by the death of the Meister, but I hear more close associations with Wagner in the Eighth than anywhere else in Bruckner. The mysterious opening is right out of the introduction to Act II of Siegfried, the sense of being spiritually lost in the symphony akin to the fear which will be the subject of the middle third of the opera. As in Wagner there is a process of laying the foundation of a giant edifice with the additional Brucknerian device of never allowing the listener to feel comfortable as to whether this first movement (as well as this work's glorious Finale) is fast or slow (a device brought to its angst laden fruition in the symphonies of his apt pupil Mahler).
There is a sense of proportion in Western music which equates slow with large, fewer notes taking up more linear time and thus creating broader melodic lines to support their own development. In Bruckner's 8th we have the finest achievement in the entire history of the Adagio. Beginning with a simple juxtaposition of 3 versus 2 (quoting from the Tristan Love Duet), the deft craftsman erects a structure to rival the great Gothic masterpieces of the Catholicism he so completely honored, loved and served. This remarkable movement ends in a very personal celestial city and the traveler cannot help but be transformed from having made the journey.
From the bowels of Nibelheim, the Finale seems to create its initial surging energy even before the first notes are sounded, as if the very air had changed because of the healing and cleansing nature of the prior movement (this phenomenon anticipating the orchestral interlude of Mahler's 8th as well as the opening of Busoni's Doktor Faust). The exciting brass instruments of the Scherzo return to point their bells heavenward and to soar above the swirling strings ala the Valkyries' Ride. The Volk is supplanted by the Kirche. Bruckner, a medievalist trapped in a romantic's body, has brought his message of redemption to a world mired in apostasy. Like his idol Wagner, his religion is not totally understood by the audience and yet they are transformed by it. Hence the mysteries of Parsifal and that of the 8th are the same and we are enriched by them through a knowledge that surpasses all understanding.
Lorin Maazel understands perfectly that to be a successful conductor of Bruckner one needs to be somewhat of an architect as well. His is a glorious conception of the piece, phrases lovingly shaped to appear humble in their introduction and majestic in their reprise. Although known for his extremely slow versions of Mahler, Maestro is surprisingly brisk in his Bruckner, blissfully ignoring modern scholarship which leans towards the glacially somber. He seemed positively transfixed last evening, calling for passion and fervor and cueing intelligently without a score. Alas, great performances are only ten percent inspiration and Maazel, like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fishes, found that his eloquence was not greeted with a correspondingly appropriate response.
The bizarre platform positioning of the Philharmonic (hopefully the new music director, when and if he ever appears, will move the violas out of the front) yielded some interesting inner voices, but overall the sound of this vastly improved body was disappointing. Here the magnificent passages of the Linz organist seemed to be coming less from a great cathedral than from a badly neglected department store Wurlitzer. The horn section, normally so reliable, was out of tune all evening (perhaps because of their unfamiliarity with the Wagner tubas required in the score) and the strings were overall puny sounding and overmatched by Bruckner's calls for frequent fortissimi. Someone needs to teach these folks that a tremolo has to be sustained, not just attacked. The various members of the string sections would start out together but each drop out at will, leaving Maazel to sort out the raveled pieces. The third movement fared best of all, but still was subject to intonational chaos in the tutti passages.
The search continues for a man with the creative mind (and the cohones) to build this orchestra into a first class vehicle for the communication of these treasures of the past. When he arrives, I hope that he has studied some of the basic principles of architecture. Otherwise, the Philharmonic could remain forever a ruin.
Frederick L. Kirshnit