Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin in the First Complete Cycle of Bruckner’s Symphonies in the U.S., with Mozart Concertos for Piano, Winds, and Strings

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Bruckner's Birthplace in Ansfelden

Bruckner’s Birthplace in Ansfelden

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim, Music Director, Conductor, and Piano
Carnegie Hall, January 19 – 29, 2017

Jan. 19
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595
Bruckner – Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, WAB 101 (1877 Linz version, ed. L. Nowak)

Jan. 20
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Bruckner – Symphony No. 2 n C Minor, WAB 102 (1877 version, ed. W. Carragan)

Jan. 21
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491
Bruckner – Symphony No. 3 n D Minor, WAB 103 (1878 version, ed. F. Oeser)

Jan. 23
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. 537, “Coronation”
Bruckner – Symphony No. 4, “Romantic” in E-Flat Major, WAB 104, “Romantic” (1881 version, ed. R. Haas)

Jan. 24
Mozart – Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, and Orchestra, K. 297b
Gregor Witt, Oboe
Matthias Glander, Clarinet
Mathias Baier, Bassoon
Radovan Vlatković

Bruckner – Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, WAB 105 (1878 version, ed. L. Nowak)

Jan. 25
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482
Bruckner – Symphony No. 6 n A Major, WAB 106 (ed. L. Nowak)

Jan. 27
Mozart – Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364
Wolfram Brandl, Violin
Yulia Deyneka, Viola

Bruckner – Symphony No. 7 in E Major, WAB 107 (1885 version, ed. L. Nowak)

Jan. 28
Bruckner – Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, WAB 108 (ed. R. Haas from 1887 and 1890 versions)

Jan. 29
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 n D Minor, WAB 109 (original 1894 version, ed. L. Nowak)

We New Yorkers are fortunate in enjoying annual visits from the greatest European and American orchestras, and even more fortunate when these visitors offer a residency or at least what some people like to call a “curated” series of concerts. In most instances these take place in Carnegie Hall. Beyond the privilege of hearing different groups under different conductors in the same familiar acoustic—fortunately one of the highest order—a more extended and coherent journey through the classical repertoire justifies the effort and expense of the tour. The brilliant 2010 series built around Beethoven and the Second Viennese School, played by the Vienna Philharmonic, with the podium shared by Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim, stands out as a telling example.

Now Daniel Barenboim is back with another great orchestra, the Berliner Staatskapelle, of which he was appointed general music director in 1992. This was made a lifetime appointment in 2000. In one of the talks he gave during the visit, Barenboim referred to them as his “beloved” orchestra, and the way they worked together during the nine concerts made it clear that this was not mere rhetoric. I’ve rarely experienced such a profound bond between a conductor and his orchestra. The Staatskapelle, before the demolition of the Berlin Wall, were the premier orchestra of East Berlin, also the orchestra of the Oper unter den Linden, better known today as the Staatsoper Berlin at the Schillertheater.

The Berliner Staatskapelle, founded by the Prince-Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg in 1570, is a treasure, and the nine concerts gave one a chance to assimilate their superb playing in some depth, especially since in all but one concert an Austrian Romantic symphony was paired with a Classical concerto. For me the pleasure of listening developed into a warm affection, and I can only hope that the Staatskapelle will continue to visit Carnegie regularly in the future.

The presentation of the series stressed its unique historical aspect—the fact that it was the first complete traversal of Bruckner’s numbered symphonies to be held in the United States—over the simple and straightforward way they were played in order, paired with concertos by Mozart, two Sinfonie concertanti and the last six piano concertos (minus the C Major, K. 503), all played by Barenboim, who conducted from the keyboard—quite a different exercise from conducting the expansive symphonies, with their massive complements of brass and woodwinds. It was splendid to hear him play this repertory again in his maturity, and it proved a perfect companion for Bruckner.

Barenboim took up Bruckner early in his career and has recorded four complete cycles: first with the Chicago Symphony, then with the Berlin Philharmonic, and two with the Staatskapelle Berlin, the most recent being associated with the current performances. The Chicago set, including the Symphony No. 0, was spread out between 1972 and 1980. The most recent was recorded live in two stretches, one in 2010 and the other in 2012. As Leon Botstein has said, there is no substitute for hearing music live, and Carnegie Hall audiences have now had the opportunity to hear nine live performances within eleven days, and they were, thanks to the musicians of the Staatskapelle and Maestro Barenboim, very much alive. One could not duplicate this experience listening through a boxed set of recordings, of which there are several. And it doesn’t matter how many times one has heard them before or how much one has in memory. It’s all in the performance and participation—in being there.

Mozart piano concertos proved both an expedient and an appropriate companion, given Barenboim’s parallel career as a pianist and the communalities and differences between them and Bruckner’s symphonies. Mozart, the keyboard virtuoso, wrote his concerti in a more engaging, entertaining mode, which doesn’t impinge on Bruckner’s symphonic gravitas. On the other hand, they embody the style of the church music Bruckner knew during his formation and early career at St. Florian, which consisted mostly of Joseph and Michael Haydn, Mozart, and their contemporaries. Actual church music might have been too didactic for these concerts and too insistent on Bruckner’s religious life, and Schubert, whose music Bruckner deeply loved, either too imposing, too long, or too trivial, if restricted to orchestral repertoire. Only Schubert’s Eighth or Ninth Symphonies could hold up in a program with Bruckner, and it would be impractical to combine Schubert’s greatest symphony, the “Great” C Major, with any of Bruckner’s. Mozart’s concertos were perfect.

Bruckner's beloved organ at Sankt Florian.

Bruckner’s beloved organ at Sankt Florian.

Bruckner was as highly prized as a virtuoso organist and improviser as Mozart was at the fortepiano—quite a different kind of performance. If Bruckner exercised his genius out of sight in the organ loft, an elegantly dressed Mozart played, surrounded by a small orchestra, before a fashionable audience. Mozart wrote all of the concertos we heard at Carnegie Hall for himself to play, four of them (K. 466, 482, 488, and 491) at a series of subscription concerts in Vienna in 1785 and 1786. (The series had begun in 1784.) These public concerts were held at the Burgtheater and the Mehlgrube on the Neue Markt, where a ballroom was repurposed as a concert hall. This was a time when Mozart was very much in demand for private concerts in grand houses like that of Count Johann Esterhézy or the Russian ambassador, Prince Golitsin. Along with the courtly good humor and grace that was part and parcel of the galant style, Mozart introduced gestures from operatic music and a dramatic chiaroscuro of inner melancholy and extroverted high spirits. If Bruckner, while he improvised, had his eyes on God, Mozart beheld the inner human behind splendid clothes and poised manners, not to mention opportunities, potential benefactors, and perhaps a pretty girl or two, Konstanze notwithstanding.

Like Mozart, Daniel Barenboim conducted from the keyboard, and I have seldom heard this done with more assurance, energy, and eloquence. It was not only the product of Barenboim’s alert gestures and eye contact, but the result of his twenty-five years of creative work with the orchestra. The intimacy of their relationship was evident in every bar, and they played with total commitment and concentration. The rich, full tone of Barenboim’s playing was complemented by a similar fullness of tone in the strings, gorgeous woodwinds and brass, and the kind of unanimous but not pedantically precise ensemble cultivated by the great central European orchestras. The textures were clear, allowing us to hear Mozart’s all-important rests in the inner voices. The energetic accents of entries off the downbeat gave the accompaniments the liveliness of chamber music. One guiding element of Barenboim’s interpretations throughout the series was his emphasis on the individual character of each work, whether by Mozart or Bruckner. Hence the turbulent D Minor concerto, K. 466, marked by vigorous accents and telling rests, contrasted sharply with the more lyrical and introverted C Minor, K. 491. Recent generations of pianists, following the example of Edwin Fischer and his pupils, like to fill out Mozart’s spare lines in the latter with ornament, sometimes distracting the listener with excess. Barenboim in contrast was particularly restrained in this concerto, reserving his interventions for the ebullient E-Flat Major, K. 482 and the lyrical A Major, K. 488. In general he observed discretion in his use of the sustaining pedal and avoided masking imperfect passage work with it, although there were a few lapses, especially later in the series, when fatigue may have been setting in. Barenboim approached all the concertos as a musician rather than a virtuoso pianist, and the results were deeply gratifying. I’ve not heard Mozart concerti played with such mature insight and completeness since Brendel’s time.

The Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, and Orchestra, K. 297b gave some of the superb wind players a chance to display their sensitivity and impeccable musicianship, and concertmaster Wolfram Brandl and principal violist, Yulia Deyneka, were a joy to hear in the great Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat. Barenboim took Mozart’s tempo markings at their word, with the slow movement as a true andante and the finale a rollicking presto.

Linz, ca. 1830

Linz, ca. 1830

If Anton Bruckner, like Mozart, had died at the age of thirty-five, he would not be remembered today—at least not outside the accounts of the Monastery at Sankt Florian and the Cathedral at Linz, where he took up the position of organist in December 1855. He had not yet written a single orchestral work, only a few choral works for the religious institutions where he was employed and the all-male Singverein, Liedertafel Frohsinn, in Linz, which was a significant part of his musical and social life. Outside of his employment, his main activity consisted of counterpoint lessons with the important Viennese theorist, Simon Sechter, who made Bruckner promise not to compose on his own until their course, carried out mostly by correspondence, was completed. This occurred in early 1861, when Bruckner was thirty-six. By the end of the year he was studying once again, this time form and orchestration with Otto Kitzler, a cellist and conductor in the Linz theater. Kitzler introduced his student to the work of Richard Wagner, whom Bruckner revered for the rest of his life. His studies with Kitzler continued on to mid-1863. He wrote his first symphony, the Studien-Symphonie in F Minor, for Kitzler, but he considered it a mere exercise. For Bruckner, his period of composing only began after his studies with Kitzler were finished.

Anton Bruckner. Photo Joseph Löwy, Vienna, 1854.

Anton Bruckner. Photo Joseph Löwy, Vienna, 1854.

Bruckner’s first official composition was Germanenzug (wab70), a patriotic cantata for male voices (soloists and chorus) and brass, written during the winter  of 1863–4 for a competition sponsored by the first Oberösterreichisches Sängerfest in Linz (4–6 June 1865), therefore a work related to his membership in the Liedertafel Frohsinn. From there he went on to write a series of substantial works on which a national reputation could be built: the Mass in D minor (June–September 1864), the Symphony no.1 in C minor (January 1865 – April 1866), the Mass in E minor (August–November 1866) and the Mass in F minor (September 1867 – September 1868).

Barenboim began his traversal of the symphonies with thes First Symphony, omitting the Symphony No. 0 (January – September 1869), which is actually Bruckner’s second. The composer only annulled this symphony from his oeuvre at the end of his career in the 1890s. Barenboim has conducted and recorded this work, and it is included in his first recorded cycle with the Chicago Symphony, but he did not choose to perform it in this cycle.

Anton Bruckner, 1868

Anton Bruckner, 1868

And so our Odyssey began with Bruckner’s successful, even impressive attempt at a grand Romantic symphony, his only symphony written before his departure for Vienna in 1868. This secular vision of the symphony dominated Bruckner’s work through the Fourth, to be edged out by the mysticism of the Fifth, only to return in the Sixth, with traces remaining in the Seventh. In this, evocations of medieval knightly Germany intermingle with popular elements, like the Ländler which appear in the scherzos. Today the mystical, Parsifalian aspects of Symphonies Five, Seven, Eight, and Nine pervade our view of Bruckner.

Wilhelm Joseph Burger (1844 Wien – 1920 Wien), “August 1871. Graben, mit der Pestsäule in Wien”

Wilhelm Joseph Burger (1844 Wien – 1920 Wien), “August 1871. Graben, mit der Pestsäule in Wien”

But before I go any further, I must say a word about Bruckner’s many revisions of his symphonies and the different versions that emerged from this activity. This is important since the Carnegie Hall program notes, by Janet E. Bedell, are either vague or inaccurate about this, along with some other misinformation. Following the First there was a gap of close to three years before he began No. 0, then something over a year until he began the No. 2 we know today. After that, Nos. 3, 4, and 5 followed on each others’ heels. Immediately following his completion of No. 5 in May of 1876, Bruckner began a campaign of revising what he had written to date, especially Nos. 2, 3, and 4. Symphonies Six through Eight once again followed one another smoothly. Then, a decade later, following the crisis induced by the rejection of his Eighth Symphony by Hermann Levi, he revised them again, in consultation with his pupils, Franz and Josef Schalk, Ferdinand Loewe, Cyrill Hynais and Max von Oberleithner, who pushed him in the direction of conventionality. Hence Nos. 3 and 4 exist in multiple versions, the Fourth being the most extensively revised. No. 1 received a makeover in 1877, then again in 1890-91, while he was tangled in the long, painful process of writing his unfinished Ninth Symphony. Six, Seven, and Nine exist basically in only one version, but there are variants and problems. There have also been several attempts to reconstruct the uncompleted finale of the Ninth from Bruckner’s sketches.

The issue of the  different versions is not as urgent for the general audience as it was in the early 1930s, when the most commonly performed versions had been conventionalized by Bruckner’s pupils. The notion that Bruckner was somehow a flawed genius, a primitive or outsider artist, persisted into the 1960s, gradually retreating in the face of better editions and conductors who better understood Bruckner’s compositional methods. These involved largely problems of length—i.e. cuts—and transitions to smooth out Bruckner’s writing, i.e. problems of structure. In 1930 Robert Haas began an edition which sought to improve the scores by removing non-Brucknerian revisions. Like the Shakespeare editors of past generations, Haas strove to create an ideal version including all sources, manuscript and published, along with subtler transitional passages, composed by himself. By the time Haas died, discredited by his association with the Nazi regime, his method was considered passé, and Leopold Nowak began another edition based on specific versions finished by Bruckner himself. More sophisticated modern ears have more tolerance for Bruckner’s often harsh harmonies and abrupt transitions, and modern conductors have learned a deeper understanding of his methods—not that we don’t have great recorded performances from that era, above all, from Furtwängler.

Today most performances one hears will represent a more or less acceptable version of what Bruckner wrote. However, our conductors have a choice of different versions, and that enriches our experience of Bruckner’s great achievement as a symphonist. For those of us who love Bruckner, there are multiple avenues to understanding his work, as it evolved. Some conductors favor the most mature revisions, whilst others love his earliest efforts. The great Bruckner conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, for example, favors the very earliest version of the Third Symphony of 1873, which is by no means unknown or totally neglected, but dwarfed by the general preference for the 1889/1890 versions. Others espouse the 1877 version.

Barenboim is rather conservative in his choice of texts. He conducted Oeser’s edition of the 1878 version of the Third Symphony, Haas’s edition of the 1881 version of the Fourth, as well as Haas’s 1939 conflation of the 1887 and 1890 versions of the Eighth, called the “original version” in the program book. This is an antiquated handing on of Haas’s incorrect description of his hybrid. (See below.) Barenboim’s Five, Six, Seven, and Nine are from the Nowak editions, generally accepted as standard today.

Getting back to the First Symphony, Maestro Barenboim performed Bruckner’s 1877 revision, which the program unhelpfully calls the “Linz” version tout court, which as I gather from the more informative notes in the DG recording, is from Nowak’s edition. In fact there are two, quite different, “Linz” versions, one the original 1866, and the other the 1877 revision. Then there is the 1891 revision, preferred by Botstein, Chailly, Rozhdestvensky, Gielen, and Wand. The 1877 is the most common version today, and the 1866, available in an edition by William Carragan and recorded by Georg Tintner and Gerd Schaller, remains a rarity. Barenboim himself espoused the 1866, the true “original,” in his Chicago cycle of the 1970s, but defected to the 1877 version in his mid-1990s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic.

As I pointed out in my discussion of Barenboim’s Mozart, his emphasis was on the unique character of each individual work. In the First, orchestral color was most restricted. The Staatskapelle’s overall sound was at its plainest, but rich in dark violas and pungent double basses. The tone was solid, corporeal, but clear. Barenboim excelled at balancing Bruckner’s as yet untamed textures and letting us hear as much detail as possible. I know the First from recordings, above all Blomstedt’s superb reading with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, but there is no substitute for hearing a work live in a performing context, and my admiration for it grew by leaps and bounds. Hearing it on the first evening of a cycle encouraged me to accept it as it is, at its own very high level, and I felt greatly rewarded by the experience. That is the point of showing up at a venue at the beginning of a project and following it through to the end. One can hear the merits of the beginnings at their true value, and take the rest as it comes later.

In this spirit, the Second was no disappointment either. The program note incorrectly identified the version played as “the 1877 version as edited by Leopold Nowak,” or, in the program listing, as simply “1877 version.” In fact Nowak’s version is a light edit of Haas’s 1938 edition, which conflates Bruckner’s scores of 1872, 1873, and 1877, with additions of his own. William Carragan published scholarly editions of the 1872 and 1877 versions in 2005, and the latter is what Maestro Barenboim conducted at Carnegie Hall. In his 1981 recording with the Chicago Symphony he used the Haas edition, but later he turned to Carragan 1877. It is, to say the least, surprising that the program to such an important concert series would get this basic information wrong. Quite a few Brucknerians traveled considerable distances to hear these concerts, but enthusiasts and specialists are not the only people who should care about editions in the case of a composer who revised as extensively as Bruckner did. There is no such thing as a definitive edition of any of Bruckner’s symphonies, other than perhaps Six, Seven, and Nine, but there are bad ones. Part of the pleasure of these great works is to hear Bruckner’s unfolding struggle with organization, structure, and orchestration. At times one is drawn to the early versions, and to the late ones at others. One could say that Bruckner left more than ten repertoire-worthy symphonies.

In the second, we are still contained within the realms of Romanticism, medievalism, and the völkisch. Bruckner’s assurance and command of grand gestures, often anticipated by pauses, has grown, and so has his mastery of orchestral color. Nonetheless, as impressive as the Second is, Bruckner’s achievement in the Third is astonishing, and Barenboim did not miss the opportunity to bring that home.

In terms of edition, the Third and the Fourth exhibit the most complex situation. The Third is most often heard in Bruckner’s latest (1889) version, but Barenboim has stayed with Oeser’s 1950 edition of the 1878 version, which completed the Haas volumes after his removal from the project because of his Nazi sympathies. This, however, lacks a coda Bruckner wrote for the scherzo on that occasion. There is also an alternative slow movement Bruckner composed in 1876. Through these successive revisions the transcendent gestures of Bruckner’s fully mature work become increasingly prominent. The original 1873 version remains largely in the völkisch world of the First and Second Symphonies. It is not without its charms. It was Robert Simpson’s favorite version1, and Herbert Blomstedt has espoused it in recent years with great success.

The important challenge in performance, however, is how the conductor can bring the Third’s disparate elements together in a coherent whole, perhaps more difficult in the case of the intermediate version than in the late ones. Coherence and structure are indeed the leading qualities of Barenboim’s interpretations of all the symphonies, and he succeeded in this most difficult case as well. He also elicited the amazing expansion of Bruckner’s sonic palette, introducing a whole new range of color and atmosphere—one of the most significant signs of Bruckner’s growth as a composer.

The Third is also a testimony to Bruckner’s devotion to Wagner, whom he called “den Meister aller Meister.” (“the master of all masters’). He expressed this by quoting passages from Wagner in the symphony, all carefully integrated into the whole. He in fact visited Wagner at Bayreuth and showed him the scores to both the Second and Third Symphonies, inviting him to choose the work to which he was willing to accept the dedication. Wagner chose the Third. I’ll spare you the story of Bruckner’s overindulgence in beer and the consequent necessity of asking Wagner to remind him of his preference.

The situation of the Fourth is equally complicated. Again the original version of 1874 is radically different from later revisions. Bruckner even substituted a new finale in 1880. Barenboim goes against the grain somewhat in adhering to Haas’s 1936 edition of the 1881 version. The evolution of the score from 1874 to the final version, which Bruckner prepared in 1888 with Ferdinand Loewe as advisor2 is similar to that of the Third. Bruckner himself even gave it the title “Romantic.” The Fourth remains even more firmly rooted in Bruckner’s early aesthetic than the Third, but it also grew with the composer’s consciousness, and Barenboim’s reading fully realized the coming immensity of his vision.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

With the Fifth Symphony, composed when he was in his early fifties, Bruckner arrived at his full maturity. His musical language was now free of the stylistic trappings of the conventional Romantic symphony, over powered by the musical shapes of counterpoint. Popular dance rhythms—i.e. the Ländler—were confined to the scherzo, and musical expression was now inspired by the fruits of his prayer and meditation. From now on, he was able to create his symphonies without extensive revision, with the exception of the Eighth, following Levi’s advice. His slow progress in the Ninth was probably also the result of the shock of Levi’s rejection. With its magnificent, tonally ambiguous slow introduction, heavenly slow movement, contrapuntal finale, and stark solemnity, the Fifth is one of his greatest creations. The varied Romantic colors of the Third and Fourth are here reduced to organ-like sonorities which serve the clarity and logic of his counterpoint. Barenboim made Bruckner’s new focus and consolidation of his symphonic abilities and strivings more than clear.

Throughout the cycle, Barenboim’s long familiarity with Carnegie Hall’s acoustics, which have admittedly changed over his sixty years of performing in the hall, enabled him to produce perfect balances and dynamics from the Staatskapelle. The huge fortissimi of the later symphonies filled the hall without forcing or harshness. The rich violin tone, dark, resinous violas and cellos, the eloquent woodwinds, and tawny brass, whether sweetly singing or rasping, were as satisfying in themselves and appropriate to the music—whether Bruckner, or in the case of the Fifth, the Mozart Sinfonia concertante for winds—as from any orchestra I have heard in the hall. The instruments sound like themselves rather than like burnished, polished luxury-transformations of themselves. It was a joy to listen to the Staatskapelle throughout the cycle, with their full string sound, ranging from meaty to silky tones, eloquent woodwinds, pungent, weighty, but refined brass, and miraculous tympanist, Thorstern Schönfeld, who was rewarded with several ovations.

One of the most striking revelations in hearing each of Bruckner’s symphonies in sequence is the almost shocking brightness of the sonorities of his Sixth Symphony in A Major, as if Bruckner were thinking of Beethoven’s Seventh. In general it is Bruckner’s revisitation of the Romantic mode of Symphonies No. 1 through No. 4. The quick-pulsed ostinati of the fast movements also seemed to echo Beethoven’s Seventh. Barenboim brought this forward by adopting rather faster tempi than usual, except in the the majestic slow movement. His approach was tighter and pushed forward more insistently than in the other symphonies. In this way he revealed what I think are true and valuable insights into the work, but this was one performance, the only one in the cycle, which seemed to make the Sixth less than it could be. It is true that the Sixth is less ambitious than the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, or Ninth—a consolidation, as I said—a backward look he was to abandon in the transcendent expanses of his last three. That said, the slow movement still shows him at his height of profundity and sheer beauty.

Anton Bruckner later in life

Anton Bruckner later in life

Beauty is the lifeblood of the great Seventh Symphony in E Major. Its expansive, lyrical, deeply humane, but Godward-yearning opening theme emerges from the pp tremolo in the violins after only two bars. The long E, the drop down to B, and ascent up the E Major chord make it both an introduction and a theme of the simplest beauty. Barenboim’s reading of the Seventh focused on the equipoise between the humanity of this lyricism and the monumental celebration of the divine that leads the unfolding of the four movements, with the scherzo revisiting the earthly delights of the earlier symphonies, although in a somewhat idealized, grander form. The main them of the fourth movement, a sprightly version of the opening theme of the E Major chord which opened the symphony, hanging on tonic E rather than dominant B, rapidly gains in force and grandeur, leading to a finale that is triumphant and joyful in the manner of a Romantic symphony, but nonetheless infused with divine exaltation. Like Barenboim’s interpretations, the Seventh was coherent and well-knit, but gleaming with life in the moment, aided by the committed energy of the Staatskapelle. In slow movements he is always fully in his element, and the Seventh’s was one of the most complete and moving. And yes, Barenboim opted for the cymbal and triangle at its climax, as most conductors do these days.

In the Eighth and Ninth, the balance is tipped towards the divine, that is—the wonder, love, and terror of the devout servant of God, which Bruckner was to his dying day. His difficulty with the final movement of the Ninth, which he never completed, had nothing to do with a crisis of faith, I think, anything but.

Bruckner had enjoyed considerable success with his Seventh, which he completed in 1884 with some revisions in 1885, and he believed that he had finally “arrived” as a composer. He began the Eighth, in C Minor, hard on its heels, and by the time he completed it three years later, he felt that he had made another step forward, in fact achieved something even greater. His spiritual life inhabited his music even more fully—the power of his faith more profoundly realized—and this led him to compose even purer counterpoint. The severe lines of his thematic material hearkened back to Bach and Palestrina. Imagine his shock, when he presented the score of the Eighth to his great friend and supporter, the conductor Hermann Levi, who had excelled in the Seventh, only to be rejected. Levi appreciated the thematic material, but he was not convinced by the development or orchestration. He suggested that Bruckner try to revise the score in collaboration with Schalk and his other students. Eventually Bruckner came around to Levi’s view, and in 1892, the symphony was eventually published and performed, with two other revisions lurking in between the 1887 original and 1892, dating from 1888 and 1890. Levi’s criticism caused Bruckner, his confidence shaken, to revert to his earlier practice of constant reworking of his scores, often with the aid of colleagues and students.

In addition to the initial 1892 publication, we have, as usual, editions by Robert Haas (1939) and Leopold Nowak, both the 1887 version (1972) and the 1890 version (1955), in addition to unpublished editions of the 1888 version by Dermot Gault, Takanobu Kawasaki, and William Carragan. Haas believed that Bruckner was devastated to the point of suicidal thoughts by the criticisms of Hermann Levi, a Jew, although there is no evidence for this. Given Bruckner’s compromised self-confidence, Haas believed that the 1887 original version was superior to the later published version, and this is by no means wrong, but his solution to the problem consisted of combining the two versions and adding transitional passages he had composed himself. This was considered bad musicology when Nowak first set to work in the 1950s, and today scholars frown on Haas even more severely. The Haas edition is faulty from the ground up, but it has its adherents among conductors, even today. It is more popular than Nowak’s edition of the 1887 version, and possibly the 1890. So, it should perhaps not be surprising that Barenboim, in his conservatism with regard to editions, has adopted the Haas conflated edition.

One would think that all that could come of Haas’ edition would be a performance lacking in coherence and unity, but Barenboim’s was the very opposite. He excelled in his understanding of the Eighth’s structural unity and of the interrelationships of the thematic material. In this respect it is worth noting that several other conductors have achieved a similar success using the Haas edition, namely Karajan, Blomstedt, Boulez, Horenstein, and Masur.

In the massive tutti, replete with tuba and Wagner tubas, Barenboim’s feeling for the Carnegie acoustics created the most splendid resonance in the hall. We were truly immersed in Bruckner’s sonic ocean, recalling a similarly wonderful experience, hearing Blomstedt fill the Tanglewood Music Shedl with the same music.

The Eighth is, along with the Ninth, Bruckner’s greatest realization of his contrapuntal genius and his most complete expression of his spiritual life, and that is not easy for many people to follow. In it, we experience human dejection and holy terror in the composer’s ability to open himself to the immensity of existence. Bruckner’s reality recalls for me that of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his most intense moments, which are frequent, although Hopkins found happiness in it, and Bruckner did not. A part of him yearned to marry a hearty peasant girl and raise a solid Christian family, however he might have envisioned its implementation. By the time of the Eighth, however, that had long faded into the past—into the rejected suits of his youth.

There are moments in the Eighth that have an anxious, depressive quality. These may spring from the fearsome aspect of coming face to face with God, but they also seem a force of nature. Certain downward-sliding passages in the Fifth and Eighth evoke an entropic tendency in the world, a failure of strength before the ultimate tasks of the faithful. Most performances I have heard reflect this quality in the music, but Barenboim, who used to resort to arbitrary gestures more often than he does today, reverted to this habit in these passages, for example about 40% through the Finale: instead of expressing a dissipation of energy, they gather it up, moving forward to the ensuing crescendo. This surprised me, and I was not entirely convinced at the time, but so excellent was every aspect of these performances, and so persuasive were they, that I was inclined to accept it for what it was, and listening to the passage again in the most recent Deutsche Gramophon recording, I was convinced.

Bruckner still later in life

Bruckner still later in life

The series came to a close with the Mozart Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488, played with a fine balance of lyricism and robust energy and Bruckner’s Ninth, the inevitable, incomplete outcome of Bruckner’s thirty-five years of labor as a symphonist, begun around the age of thirty-seven, after years of study and experience in organ improvisation and study, as I have mentioned.

The composition of the Ninth was a protracted struggle, begun in 1887 and continuing up to Bruckner’s death in 1896. His health had begun to fail in 1891, and life became increasingly difficult for him, but the vision and scope of the Ninth presented their own difficulties. He finished the first movement in October1892, the Scherzo in February 1894, and the Adagio later the same year. After that, he had only the final movement before him, and this proved the most difficult of all. He left ample sketches behind at his death, but he had not yet put them together into a whole. The three finished movements are usually performed  as is, and that was the case here. Bruckner left instructions that his Te Deum should take the place of the last movement, if he should die before completing it, and some conductors have observed this on occasion.

There have also been several attempts to complete the Fourth Movement from the sketches. The best known of these is the compilation of Samale, Philips, Cohrs, and Mazzuca, begun in the mid-1980s and last revised in 2012. This has been performed and recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. William Carragan began his reconstruction of the sketches in 1981 and most recently revised them in 2010. I find this to be more detailed and convincing, in terms of structure, counterpoint, and harmony, An excellent performance under Gerd Schaller was recorded that same year. There are others, including a 2015 version by Gerd Schaller himself. If none of these have become current in the repertory, they remind us at the very least that Bruckner did not intend to leave behind a torso.

In his interview with the present author earlier this month Manfred Honeck, a brilliant and learned Brucknerian, proposed an explanation of Bruckner’s difficulties with the last movement, or at the least the foundation for one. In studying the score, Honeck found phrasal and intervallic connections in the Adagio with the Agnus Dei in the traditional music of the Mass. The Agnus Dei (“Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. / Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, don nobis pacem.”) is the climax of the penitential prayers leading up to the celebration of Holy Communion, the central mystery of Christian life. I infer, then, if the slow movement refers to or embodies these penitential prayers, the Finale is likely to represent the Communion itself. If this is so, Bruckner would have approached the task with the deepest humility as a man and a composer. The moment of the sacred mystery would have appeared so great to him that he was unable to complete it. As Honeck observed, Bruckner wanted to achieve something beyond anything he had done before…but his death prevented it.

This is not to say that the first three movements of Bruckner’s final symphonic utterance were not on this exalted level. If there is a sense of an agonized and exhausted farewell to earthly life in this music, there is also a farewell to the nineteenth century. Its often strange harmonies look forward to the twentieth. Bruckner had known Wagner’s Parsifal since its premiere at Bayreuth in 1882. Its influence is palpable in the Seventh and the Eighth, but in the Ninth its melodic character, harmonies, and spirit have become even more pervasive, as if he had interiorized the sufferings of the diseased Amfortas…and he had been something of a holy fool all his life.

Bruckner's Death Mask

Bruckner’s Death Mask

With the robust body and exceptional clarity of the Staatskapelle’s strings, Barenboim achieved his crowning glory in this magnificent Ninth. The inner voices, especially the thick mid and lower voices were exceptionally present, as they should be, since they convey the suspensions and tonal ambiguities which keep the music of the first and third movements above all in constant motion. (There is Tristan in this music as well.) I felt transfixed by the long line of the different voices and their interplay, through exposition on to development and recapitulation, so intense and constant was Barenboim’s and the Staatskapelle’s concentration—which is the sine qua non of performing Bruckner’s mature symphonies, from the Fifth on. Finding the coherence and unity of Bruckner is a balance between harmonic and formal analysis and following the subtle, often ambiguous turns of the melodic lines in counterpoint. Only in this way, have conductors managed to get beyond the old belief that Bruckner was weak in structure, that his symphonies are no more than juxtaposed blocks of music which follow their own eccentric path to a climax and then start over again.

With the final, beatific E Major chord, Bruckner eventually found through the course of the movement, this glorious cycle came to an end. One can only be profoundly grateful to Carnegie Hall and to Maestro Barenboim for providing this new, unique experience of hearing the nine numbered symphonies in order. One has to experience such a thing live in the hall. One cannot duplicate it with recordings, as I said above. It is likely to remain a rare privilege, as strong an attraction as it was, with large audiences even for Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, and near-capacity audiences for the rest, as well as one or two sold-out concerts, I believe. Now I will go back to my recordings and streamed performances, which make it possible to explore Bruckner’s different versions. Visits to Sankt Florian and Bad Ebrach might be in order. A cycle provides a special insight, but it is not the only way to enjoy Bruckner. Still, if, say, in a few years, Manfred Honeck were to organize a cycle in Pittsburgh, I would certainly be there.

  1. Robert Simpson, The Essence of Bruckner, London, 1967, pp. 64ff.
  2. Franz Welser-Möst, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, gave an entirely convincing, in fact unforgettable reading of Benjamin Korstvedt’s 2004 edition of the 1888 version at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 2013.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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