Bruckner’s Inner Thoughts
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (ed. Robert Haas)
Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Principal Conductor)
C. Thielemann (© www.carnegiehall.com)
After its creation 465 years ago, playing through Princes and Electors, Kings and Emperors, Nazis and Communists and Democrats, one would imagine that the Staatskapelle Dresden would have a pretty good orchestra. Imagination, though, has nothing to do with it. In terms of European classical playing, the Dresden Orchestra is simply a stunning ensemble.
It lacks the flashiness which Von Karajan gave to Berlin, it lacks those so smooth ensembles of Vienna or the warmth of Amsterdam. What Prince Elector Moritz von Sachsen put into his State Chapel in 1548 was a group which plays music the way it was written, with few diversions or idiosyncrasies, simply the fact that one realizes this is the way music should be heard.
And in the Robert Haas version of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, the longest version of this very long symphony (Celibidache made it an hour and 45 minutes!), they had an ultimate test last night.
The orchestra had three advantages. First, Carnegie Hall, where the highest and lowest notes, flurries and dissonances, flutes and (alas) errant horns are shown to their fullest. They also had an exceptional audience last night, since the Symphony is a daunting one. No coughs, sneezes, no applause in between movements, only a single person walking out. They were very respective indeed.
Their recent history also gave added significance. Like the New York Philharmonic, where Sir Colin Davis was a regular conductor (and where Alan Gilbert played Elgar’s Nimrod in homage to him and the Boston victims), the Staatskapelle had employed Sir Colin as a Conductor Laureate, and the Bruckner was played in his honor.
Under their newest Resident Conductor, Christian Thielemann, the work was (dare I say it for such a mammoth piece?) minimally right. That is, Mr. Thielemann was, to Wagner’s phrase about conductors, “scarcely noticeable.” First, physically, where his movements were the essential ones, where cueing was almost invisible, where only the most subtle gestures were necessary. More important was that the Staatskapelle Dresden was playing Bruckner, not themselves. I have heard this symphony played several times in New York, where trumpets blazed out, where strings were so pure, so perfect that one reveled at the timbre. These are fine performances in their own right.
Mr. Thielemann, though, is not one to show off the “good parts”. This was noticeable immediately in the opening, which, under the conductor, was like the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth. Nobody, of course, can imitate the D Minor start, but the Staatskapelle at least started with that sobriety. And the soberness of the occasion continued throughout.
In the Adagio, the strings, divided into eight parts, were not burnished, not velvety, they gave a unified sound with harps that allowed Bruckner’s thoughts to come through. One looked in vain for a song, a theme, a melody. Instead, he conducted it like Gothic architecture, the stones, the buttresses, and the organ-like faux-medieval chords to shine through.
Mr. Thielemann did not conduct the Scherzo with any thought of even ironic humor. One usually expects an easy-going Trio with hunting horns, but Bruckner had added (and Mr. Haas preserved) a solemn Trio, one which showed that this was a symphony of the utmost seriousness.
The Finale has been played as a triumph, a martial and angelic end to a work of “heavenly length”. Mr. Thielemann never ventured in this way. This was a state of contemplation, the inner thoughts of a very pure composer, yearning for perhaps the Platonic Ideal rather than the human victory.
Thus, the Staatskapelle Dresden and Mr. Thielemann gave the last part of the movement a feeling which was neither over-reverent or bathetically cloying. The orchestra is so splendid in its own right, that he built it up to the last wonderful C major chords with inner restraint.
At the end, one did not rejoice with either the religiosity or cathedral-like glory of the music. Extra-emotional terms were not needed, for this music succeeded, in its length and its structure, on its own splendid terms.