Archive for Anton Bruckner

Wagner & Bruckner at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2020 by telescoper

I had to brave some very inclement weather on the way to last night’s performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mihhail Gerts (deputising for Natalie Stutzmann who had to withdraw “due to unforeseen circumstances”). The concert consisted of the Prelude to Act I and the Good Friday Music from the Opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner followed by Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner. To my surprise these pieces were performed without a wine break interval.

As was the case a couple of weeks ago for Bruckner 8, a big orchestra was required, including a quartet of Wagnertuben.

While not everyone likes Wagnerian Opera performed in entirety there must be very few people who don’t enjoy the overtures. A programme consisting entirely of Richard Wagner’s Preludes would make for a wonderful concert, and the Prelude to Act I of Parsifal, although very familiar, is so beautiful that it bears repeated listening. Whenever I hear it I can’t help thinking of the poignant last scene of the very last episode of Inspector Morse: `Goodbye Sir’, says Lewis and kisses the dead Morse on the forehead to the accompaniment of this music from Parsifal.

The Good Friday Music occurs at the start of the Third Act of Parsifal so is in a sense also a Prelude. Even out of the context of the Opera, it provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection and contemplation because it is so subtle and understated, somewhat uncharacteristically for Wagner.

These two pieces last about half an hour, and normally one would expect an interval after them, especially since the Symphony is over an hour in duration. I’m not sure what the reason was for playing the Bruckner straight after the Wagner, but it seems to have been a last minute decision. The printed programme contains the usual `INTERVAL_ 20 minutes’ so I had ordered a drink for the interval; nobody had told the bar staff there wouldn’t be one. I got my money back, though.

One positive aspect of the lack of a pause was that it made the connection between Bruckner’s composition and Wagner even more obvious. The radiant first movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, with its noble melody soaring over shimmering violin tremolos is very reminiscent of Wagner, as is much of the rest of the Symphony (including the orchestration). Bruckner famously idolized Wagner and this composition is at least partly a tribute to his musical hero. It is said that Bruckner had a premonition of Wagner’s death in 1883 and the cymbal crash during the second (slow) movement symbolizes the moment that he found out that his premonition had come true. That whole movement (marked Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam; very solemn and very slow) is very moving: sombre though not excessively mournful. The third movement Scherzo is marked Sehr Schnell (very fast) but I found the tempo last night rather restrained. I was expecting something a bit wilder. The last movement actually sounded to me more like Mahler than Wagner.

The Seventh is probably Bruckner’s best known and most performed Symphony. It was certainly a big hit for him when it was first performed in 1884. I enjoyed last night’s performance. Usually videos of these concerts are put on the Lyric FM Youtube channel shortly after the performance, but when I looked just now last night’s wasn’t there yet. I’ll put a link up as soon as it appears.

UPDATE: Here, as promised, is the recording:

 

The picture above was taken a while before the performance and, although quite a few more people came in before it started, there were still quite a few empty seats. The National Concert Hall posted a (small) financial loss last year. I do the best I can to support it by attending as frequently as I can, but I am always saddened a bit to see so many empty seats. Anyway, I shall be back there this evening for a special event which is part of the Beethoven 250 celebrations, so watch this space!

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on February 8, 2020 by telescoper

Last night I once again found myself settling into a seat at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, this time under the direction of Mihhail Gerts. There was only one item on the menu – the Symphony No. 8 by Anton Bruckner – but what a feast it turned out to be!

Bruckner had a habit of making multiple revisions to his scores, and the Eighth Symphony is no exception to this. There are two major versions (usually referred to as the 1887 and 1890 versions) but also numerous edited variations of these two. For the record last night we heard the edition made by Robert Haas, based mainly on the 1890 version, but replacing some pieces which had been edited out of the 1887, perhaps most notably a quiet passage in the Third (Adagio) Movement.

This is a colossal work, lasting about 90 minutes in performance and requiring a huge orchestra so the stage was very crowded when the concert got under way.

As well as larger than usual string sections, the brass section comprises no less than eight horns, three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba as well as a quartet of Wagnertuben which you don’t often see in a symphony orchestra. These instruments have a sound somewhere between that of the horns and the trombones and they add an immense solidity to the section that produces a wall of sound that has an extraordinary effect when heard live, especially during the fortissimo passages (of which there are several in this work).

Woodwinds include a bass clarinet and a contrabassoon alongside the more usual clarinets and flutes, and there are three harps and percussion. A special mention must be made of the timpanist (Grahame King) who was given a huge amount to do, and did it all exceptionally well.

The work is structured in four movements, each of which involves a shift from minor to major (the piece opens in C minor) but each covers a very varied musical landscape. The overall atmosphere of the work varies too. At times it is tranquil (or perhaps merely resigned) but it often evokes a sense of conflict and sometimes even terror. It does, however, end in a glorious crescendo that gives a sense of triumph. Along the way there is some truly memorable passages: a gorgeous dialogue between flutes and clarinets in the 2nd Movement (Scherzo) comes to mind, and the Adagio as a whole is just magnificent.

I have never heard this work performed live, and have to admit I got completely lost in the performance. Despite the length of the concert, I never looked at my watch once during the whole thing. Congratulations to Mihhail Gerts and the entire orchestra for taking us on such an epic journey. I enjoyed every second of it, and so I think did the rest of the audience, because the end was greeted with a standing ovation.

But you don’t need to rely on my opinion. You can’t beat live music, but the entire concert is here for you to enjoy as live on the Lyric FM stream. Enjoy!

Final Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2011 by telescoper

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.