BWW Review: Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin Perform Bruckner's 9th Symphony at Carnegie Hall
During his lifetime, Anton Bruckner was known principally as a virtuoso organist rather than a composer, and that background has informed all of his compositions but probably none more interestingly than his unfinished 9th Symphony. The orchestration of his middle symphonies clearly evoke the organ through their complex layering of massive, multi-textural, sonic planes. But the 9th reaches even higher. His deeply religious convictions, like fingerprints, are everywhere in the work. Majestic and mysterious, the 9th has provided conductors for over a century the opportunity to delve deeply into interpretative nuance. Individual preferences aside, the underlying emotional thrust of this music is some of the most powerful and passionate ever written.
Daniel Barenboim has taken on the Herculean task of mounting all nine Bruckner Symphonies in succession at Carnegie Hall and the results have been uniformly astounding. To this critic's ear, Maestro Barenboim is particularly in tune with Bruckner's more mystical side, allowing for an expansive read but never meandering or dragging - the structures were rock solid throughout.
From the tremulous opening strings, an omni-present undercurrent of tension beat just beneath the surface waiting to break through. The glorious turbulence of the first movement was punctuated with savage blasts of brass cutting through the lilting strings. No matter how beautiful the melody, Bruckner was never content to let it live on its own; always a slight harmonic discord had to live just below. And Barenboim did a fine job of allowing the underpinning to show itself without ever overpowering the melody. Throughout the titanic first movement, the conductor appeared to address his orchestra with the military bearing of a general, delivering sharp thrusting jabs of his baton to punctuated the tempo. It appeared he may have been slightly under the weather (or just overwhelmed by the music?) as he reached for his handkerchief with noticeable regularity all throughout the evening to mop his perspiration.
The pizzicato that begins the mighty scherzo was extremely delicate, almost to the point of imperceptible before exploding into the majesty and terror of the pulsating brass and strings, which seemed to cause the earth to shake. The harsh pulses gave way to the magnificent trio which showed sumptuous glimpses of a demonic dance in the distance.
The third movement was revelatory. Bruckner referred to this movement as his "Farewell to Life." The rising brass passages longingly unfolded into achingly tender strings. This level of dynamic sensibility isn't always present in Barenboim's Brucknerian excursions, but they brought a marvelous delicacy to the movement. The grand climaxes of the final movement were absolutely gargantuan in size and cataclysmic in intensity, and Barenboim regularly had to lean back on the railing, appearing to have been blown away by the sonic shock wave he had unleashed. The pent-ultimate, devastating eruption, just prior to the finale was shattering. With it, Barenboim created a masterful juxtaposition of raw, savage power and the most serene coda imaginable, with the lovely Wagner tubas yearnfully calling out into the distance.
Sometimes we New Yorkers forget how lucky we are to live in a city where events like this are possible. Congratulations to Maestro Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin and kudos to the administration at Carnegie Hall for this kind of bold and daring programming.