Final Thoughts

I decided to round off the working week last night with a trip to St David’s Hall in Cardiff to hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the baton of guest conductor Jac van Steen in a programme of music by Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner. Both pieces featured in the concert are longstanding favourites of mine and I’d been looking forward to the event for some time. The concert was billed Final Thoughts as each piece was in fact the respective composer’s last.

First up were the Vier Letzte Lieder (“Four Last Songs“). Richard Strauss had a particularly wonderful gift for writing music for the female voice and these pieces are perfect demonstrations of his art. Only published posthumously, they were never performed in Strauss’ lifetime but they quickly established themselves as concert favourites. In fact there’s no evidence that they were ever intended to form a set; the last – which happens to be my favourite, Im Abendrot, a setting of a poem by von Eichendorff, was completed before Strauss decided to set the other three, which are poems by Herman Hesse. There is more unity in compositional approach in the first three of the four, but nothing for me matches the sheer gorgeousness of the last. I freely admit that I quite often burst into tears listening to it, it’s so beautiful. I posted a favourite version elsewhere on this blog, and I have six different versions on CD.

Last night’s performance featured Swedish mezzo soprano Katarina Karnéus who has a very fine voice. They were performed at a slightly brisker tempo than is often the case (which is no bad thing) and the orchestra was in good form. The only problem was that the singer was standing so far back into the orchestra that she had difficulty projecting her voice, particularly since she was almost behind the conductor from where I was sitting. Some of her singing was barely audible, but when she did break through she brought out the beauty of Strauss music in fine style. Overall, a very nice performance. But no, I didn’t burst into tears this time.

After the interval we had Anton Bruckner‘s monumental Symphony No. 9, which was unfinished at Bruckner’s death in 1896. Insufficient material was recovered after the composer’s death to enable a reconstruction of the missing 4th movement, so this work is generally performed in its incomplete state with only three movements. Even so, it’s an immense work in both length and ambition. The majestic first movement (marked Feierlich, Misterioso; solemn & mysterious) with its soaring themes and thunderous climaxes always puts me in mind of a mountaineering expedition, with wonderful vistas to experience but with danger lurking at every step. At times it’s rapturously beautiful, at times terrifying. It’s not actually about mountaineering, of course – Bruckner meant this symphony to be an expression of his religious faith, which, in the latter years of his life must have been pretty shaky if the music is anything to go by.

The second movement (Scherzo) is all juddering rhythms, jagged themes and harsh dissonances reminiscent (to me) of Shostakovich. It alternates between menacing, playful and cryptic; the frenzied animation of central Trio section is especially disconcerting.

The last movement  (Adagio)  begins restlessly, with an unaccompanied violin theme and then becomes more obviously religious in character in various passages of hymn-like quality, still punctuated by stark crescendi. In this movement Bruckner doffs his cap in the direction of Richard Wagner,  especially when the four Wagner tubas appear, and the movement reaches yet another climax with the brass bellowing out the initial violin theme. This dies away and the movement comes to an unresolved, poignant conclusion. With a long pause in silence as if to say “that’s all he wrote”, the concert came to an end.

Although I’ve loved this work for many years I’ve only ever heard it on CD before last night.  The live performance definitely adds another dimension and I enjoyed it enormously. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales may not be the Berlin Philharmonic but I was generally very impressed, especially with the strings, who brought warmth and colour to a piece some people find a bit cold. On the other hand, on the way out people were raving about the four Wagner tubas, which I thought sounded ill-at-ease and unconvincing.

The concert was broadcast live last night on BBC Radio 3 (you can here it here for the next week or so), which is why it had to start at 7pm. A crazy decision by the controller of BBC Radio3, in my opinion, to insist that live concerts all start so early. There being no time to go home first, I just went straight there from work. I was deeply disappointed to see such a low turnout – the Hall was less than half full. Curiously, though, when I had tried to book a ticket just a week or so ago the vast majority of seats were sold and I had to settle for a place upstairs. I’m told that large numbers of seats are kept back for corporate guests and for BBC employees, of whom there are many in Cardiff as Auntie Beeb is a big employer here. Since these folk haven’t paid anything they often don’t turn up. The effect of this is that no matter how interesting the programme is, how fine the venue is, and how cheap the tickets are (top price is less than £30), the place is often pretty empty. It’s a shame.

Anyway, the one advantage of a 7pm start is that the concerts finish quite early, just after nine in this case. It was still twilight when I emerged from St David’s Hall, so I decided to take a crepuscular perambulation along the Taff embankment past the cricket ground at Sophia Gardens (where England are currently playing a Test Match against Sri Lanka). When I got near the SWALEC Stadium I was beset on all sides by a number of bats, no doubt feasting on insects flying over the river. They didn’t bother me at all. I find them fascinating creatures, in fact. At one point however, one of the critters flew into my leg at about knee level and fell back onto the path, apparently stunned. I stopped to find out whether it was badly hurt but after a bit of a struggle getting airborne it flapped off into the murk. It was a tiny little thing and, judging by the poor standard of its navigation, I suspect it was merely a trainee.

18 Responses to “Final Thoughts”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    There were two pretty good bats inside the stadium too.

  2. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Final Thoughts […]

  3. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: sounds like a nice programme, and the logic of pairing these works is understandable. But in the end they couldn’t be more different. Strauss presents a consistent picture of peaceful resignation at the end – like putting your feet up for a long snooze after a nice day out in the hills. This is of course deeply moving (and it’s the horn solo at the end of September that particularly gets to me, even more than Im Abendrot), but it’s nothing like what you get with Bruckner. Here, you have sheer existential terror: the feeling of a man who had a rock solid religious faith in the afterlife throughout his life, but who starts to have serious doubts in the face of approaching death. This feeling of growing darkness contrasting with serene beauty is why I find late Bruckner so gripping.

    And this psychological unravelling continues in the finale. I’m sorry you used your post to promulgate the long-standing myth that the finale could not be reconstructed. From what I’ve read, there seems little doubt that the finale was complete in terms of structure and main thematic and harmonic lines, and was in the process of orchestration. What seems to have happened is that souvenir-hunting vultures took many pages of the manuscript from Bruckner’s room in the immediate aftermath of his death. Some of this material was recovered, and together with what was not stolen we have a pretty complete picture of the finale, which is well described in http://tinyurl.com/b9finale

    The movement consisted of 665 bars, of which a mere 96 are gaps where the original sketch material is still missing. But for 85% of the piece we know pretty well what Bruckner was saying, and it is possible to fill these gaps with some plausible pastiche to give a convincing overall impression. The above article discusses several completions and CDs thereof. For me, the one that makes the strongest musical impression is the Naxos disk by Wildner. It’s a revelation: 23 minutes of music that includes some of the finest things the man ever wrote. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I think it should be performed automatically instead of the 3-movement torso (which does work so well in that form) – but anyone who cares about this music really should not miss the chance to hear what Bruckner intended as the finale of his 9th.

  4. telescoper Says:

    John,

    There are moments of serenity in the Bruckner, but they are only passing and are soon replaced by uncertainty and, yes, terror. You’re right that it couldn’t be more different in that respect to Strauss, who seems to express a willing acceptance of death.

    As for the reconstruction, I bow to your superior knowlege of such matters but the Radio 3 presenter Nicola Heywood Thomas also stated that only partial sketches were available for the last movement. I haven’t heard any reconstruction. The three complete movements are very balanced as they stand, and I’m not sure I’m drawn to the idea of clagging some sort of pastiche onto the end but I’d certainly be interested in hearing the last movement in some form.

  5. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: I don’t have “superior knowledge” beyond the web links I had in my comment, but do read them and see what you think. “Partial sketches” is true in a legalistic sense, but gives the commonly quoted impression that Bruckner was still struggling to find a way to finish the symphony. This view seems to be 100% wrong based on the musicological evidence. And parts of the finale undoubtedly have the hairs on the back of the neck standing up. I really urge you the heard the Wildner recording, just treating the finale as an isolated piece initially, without worrying how you’d like to hear the whole symphony.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    Well, that was some programming: two absolutely magnificent pieces of music in one concert. I could imagine that I would seriously consider taking both these pieces if I were ever invited on to Radio 4’s desert island.

    I listened to the concert on Radio 3. Katarina Karneus’s voice was very clear on the broadcast. She really came into her own in Im Abendrot. My own preference is for great tenderness in the Four Last Songs, rather than the powerful operatic voices commonly adopted, and Karneus struck a nice, sensible balance between these two styles. It is the soaring solo violin theme in Beim Schlafengehen that really
    touches me.

    Radio 3 has been broadcasting live concerts each weekday for about three weeks, and these have generally started at 7:30 p.m., rather than the 7:00 p.m. adopted by Radio 3 for the start of recordings of concerts over the past few years. So the 7:00 p.m. of Friday’s Cardiff concert start was contrary to Radio 3 practice over the past few weeks. (Most classical concerts in Britain start at 7:30 p.m.).

    I adore Bruckner’s amazing Ninth Symphony. It works magnificently to my ears as the incomplete three-movement work. Friday’s performance was very nice.

    The third movement is astonishing. Some way in, the music begins to build towards a climax, then withdraws from it, establishing a pattern that occurs throughout the latter part of the movement. There are two great climaxes, loud, powerful, tremendous and uplifting, but also disturbing in their power and with a dark element. The music then builds to another of these climaxes, but this is even louder and is dissonant, discordant, creating a sense of anguish, terror, even horror. That is amazing music. And then the music follows the pattern of the previous climaxes, quietening and softening. It then turns, as though it might build towards another climax, but withdraws from that, then slows, quietens, becomes more peaceful, then sublime, and gradually fades out gloriously into silence.

    It is absolutely amazing music, truly great.

    I have the Naxos Wildner recording of the completion of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. It is a very interesting recording, and there is a lot of merit in it. What is done with the the fourth movement is convincing, and the piece ends, like most of Bruckner’s symphonies, by reaching a logical, emotionally positive end defined by repeating material from a previous movement. However, I still prefer the three-movement version that is conventionally played: the terrifying discordant climax and the gradually fading out into silence is such a magnificent way to end a piece of music.

    My favourite recording on disc is by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini; some people might regard that as a little slow and heavy, but I really love that CD.

    • telescoper Says:

      Can’t disagree with your description of the music. For the record, however, or perhaps for the CD, my favourite recording is the Berlin Philharmonic with von Karajan which has got it all. I once heard someone describe Bruckner 9 as “Total Music”. Seems perfectly apt to me.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Right.

      I’ve got the 1960s Karajan Berlin Philharmonic Bruckner symphony cycle on CD. That’s really good, thought not necessarily the last say in the symphonies. My favourite recording of the 7th Symphony is with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, his last ever recording from the late 1980s.

    • telescoper Says:

      Incidentally, back to the Strauss, I think the positioning of the soloist on stage may have been down to the fact it was being broadcast. Generally I like the Lieder singer to be close to the orchestra, rather than way out in front, but this time it didn’t work so well for the audience.

  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    About two years ago, there were three performances of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in London within a period of a few months. The first was with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Festival Hall. All tickets had been sold out when I tried to buy one.

    The next performance was from the Concertebouw orchestra of Amsterdam with Bernard Haitink in the Barbican Centre. That was also a sell out by the time I tried to get a ticket.

    I managed to get a ticket for the third performance of the 9th Symphony. That was given by the London Symphony Orchestra conduced by Valery Gergiev. The venue was the one with the strangest acoustics I have ever experienced: beneath the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I managed to get a seat close to the orchestra, so that the 7 second echo would not be too much of a problem. It proved to be an excellent concert. Outstanding.

    • telescoper Says:

      That’s just typical. You wait ages for a Bruckner, and then you get three coming along all at once!

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I timed the echo in St. Paul’s by counting in my head.

      Sound travels 2.3 km in 7 seconds. If the typical path length between reflections was 100m, it means that the sound would have been reflected over 20 times before it died to inaudibility. If the path length was 50m, it would have experienced over 40 reflections. Curious.

  8. John Peacock Says:

    It’s all personal taste, but I think Karajan’s 1970s take on the symphony was much superior to his 1960s effort. For a version in modern-ish sound, this is the one that stands out for me. But Furtwangler’s 1944 rendering has a unique interaction of the darkness in the music and the darkness of place and time, which is utterly terrifying and demands to be heard.

    • telescoper Says:

      The two Von Karajan recordings are quite different, and I agree the later one is superior. I’ve heard the Furtwangler one too – rather lo-fi, but that brings out the starkness rather like a black-and-white horror film.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I’ve never heard the Furtwangler recording of the 9th Symphony. I’ll have to look out for it.

      I don’t have a recording from Gunther Wand either.

  9. John Peacock Says:

    A lot of reviewers rave over Gunther Wand’s Bruckner, I know, but somehow I never find it works for me.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I’ve heard Bruckner performances from Wand on the radio – some recordings and, further back, a few live performances. They were very good, but not as unique as might be expected given the statements of some of the more enthusiastic reviewers.

  10. […] quite fitting to be going to see Welsh National Opera‘s production of Turandot so soon after Friday’s concert. After all this was Giacomo Puccini‘s last Opera and it was incomplete at the time of the […]

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