Monday, 21 May 2012

Concertgebouw/Haitink - Bruckner, 20 May 2012

Barbican Hall

Symphony no.5 in B-flat major (revised version, 1877-8)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

I rarely find myself in the realm of the juste milieu, ever aware of Schoenberg’s dictum that only the middle road does not lead to Rome. Nevertheless, when it comes to Bruckner, I seem to be somewhere along that road, slightly fearful of where its non-Roman destination might turn out to be. I admire the later symphonies greatly; indeed, the final two I find truly awe-inspiring. The earlier works I continue, however, to find problematical, and cannot help but contrast their formal difficulties – devotees will doubtless respond that the difficulties are mine, not Bruckner’s, and perhaps they are – with the unanswerable ‘rightness’ and satisfaction afforded by Brahms. Nor can I bring myself to become hopelessly absorbed in the business of interminable numbers of ‘versions’, though I cannot help but think that some judicious editorial work would not necessarily be a bad thing.

It is testament, then, to the excellence of this performance from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bernard Haitink – ‘in the presence’ of a Dutch princess of whom I had never heard, but who required a welcoming committee and police guard – that there were times when I was almost convinced. Not all of the time, I admit, but I do not recall hearing a better sense of the work as a whole, not even from Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra last year. From the opening pizzicati, orchestra and conductor were utterly at home. The excellence of playing was such that a split horn note registered more strongly than otherwise it would have done. The weight, both sonorous and historical, of the Concertgebouw’s bass line contrasted strongly with the lighter approach adopted by Abbado. This was Bruckner with a reassuringly traditional, almost mediævalist, character to our pilgrim’s progress. There was, moreover, the inestimable advantage of having a great Wagnerian at the helm, even down to the level of the handling, the resounding, of string tremolos. Haitink’s way with – I am tempted to say, ‘creation of’ – the melos, the guiding thread, almost convinced me that Bruckner could develop here, rather than juxtapose. The splendid peals of rejoicing at the end proved a fitting culmination to a journey led by the surest of guides.

Command of line was equally supreme in the slow movement, likewise Haitink’s ability to conjure so gloriously full an orchestral sound – and, of course, the orchestra’s ability to provide it. Lucas Macías Navarro’s oboe solos were an especial melancholy joy. Indeed, the oases of woodwind stillness had me spellbound. I truly felt that the pathways, thickets even, mattered, as well as beguiled; Haitink again proved a magisterial guide. The abruptness of transition between material in the scherzo I continued to find bewildering, perhaps bizarre, but everything was wonderfully characterised and the menace imparted to peasant dances proved properly terrifying.
Apparent reassurance in the return of earlier material at the opening of the finale, after the model of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was immediately questioned by the majesty of the Concertgebouw’s brass section in voicing the chorale. One could not doubt the conviction in all the contrapuntal working out that followed, riveting in its way, and yet, does it not actually go on a bit? Does the writing of a fugue not continue to feel like an externally-imposed decision rather than an organic dictate of the material? In a lesser performance, I might have started gazing at my watch, but not here. Nevertheless, longing for a spot, or more than a spot, of Brahmsian developing variation was still felt on my doubtless heretical part. That said, the magnificence of the playing at the conclusion sent shivers down the spine. It was a pity, then, that someone who sounded suspiciously similar to the idiotic purveyor of multiple Bravos at the previous Barbican Concertgebouw appearance(under Mariss Jansons) again contrived to make his presence felt immediately.


Anonymous said...

A friend showed me this today,and, as a avid reader of your blog, how could I not think of you? ;-)

Mark Berry said...

Thank you so much! I had seen that once before but had forgotten about it. I think it deserves re-posting by itself...

Zwölftöner said...

But ‘rightness’ in Brahms according to which criteria? And is it fair or productive to use those criteria as a stick with which to beat Bruckner?

I guess I find that ‘rightness’ in Brahms, paired with historicism, is what makes his symphonies seem more the boa constrictor to me than Bruckner’s. I don’t find Schoenberg much help as a reference here since his harmonic theories were, confusingly, predominantly informed by Sechter, ‘developing variation’ in his understanding is very different to that by which (its full implications absorbed by the late 1970s) Brahms became paradigmized and thus fetishized, and besides, this and other principles he propagated were regularly negated in his own music (as combinatorial discontinuities in op. 33a and elsewhere demonstrate). As a phenomenon I’m really far from being convinced this has so much to do with Brahms as it does with the state of the analytical discipline, and the extent to which proving the ‘rightness’ of analytical models continues to this day (see the recent rise of NRT) is not helping. But with Bruckner’s analytical ‘problem’ I sense we are turning a corner and I suppose the ‘devotees’ can only hope this will trickle down into programme notes, reviews, and other such material. Bruckner polarizes less than he used to but there’s still some way to go.

PS Working on Bruckner editions actually fascinating. Working, however, with one’s factionalized colleagues on Bruckner editions sometimes a nightmare.

PPS Wonderful to read about Haitink; I see him conduct this symphony in the summer (Salzburg, Vienna Phil).