Vintage Beethoven, and a Rare Bruckner Varietal at Bard College, February 6, 2010

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Lugwig van Beethoven and Anton Bruckner

American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein, Conductor
Sosnoff Auditorium, Fisher Hall, Bard College
Saturday, February 6, 2010

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (1873 version, “The Wagner Symphony”)
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (“Eroica”)

One uses “memorable” sparingly, lest the older we get, and the further from the experience, the greater the potential for despair in our failing grasp of that memory’s vital immediacy. We might, with Wordsworth, bemoan “the glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore.” However, Saturday’s concert at Bard has been placed, albeit precariously, in my ever-reduced, non-volatile memory as a treasured event. Leon Botstein’s performance of Beethoven’s Eroica was one of transcendent clarity, color, and musical balance. I believe the members of the American Symphony Orchestra were aware of how well they played, and how convincingly Mr. Botstein’s interpretation was executed. Given the reserve of Mr. Botstein’s thoughts regarding the first two Beethoven symphonies, performed earlier this fall, the question lingered as to how the quintessentially Romantic Eroica would fare. Using an ensemble scaled to intended proportion, but without period instruments, this Third never lost a mote of its rhetorical vigor or sonic weight. While coloristic nuances abounded in the Funeral March, the sense of the tragic was never tilted, nor was it hyperbolized. The Scherzo was absolutely perfect, and the Finale’s variations were richly narrated, chameleon-like in their differentiation, and powerfully projected to the very end. It was difficult to sit without stirring in the rousing coda. Mr. Botstein and the ASO tonight have reached beyond regional, national, or temporal excellence.

The performance of Anton Bruckner’s Third Symphony in D Minor, the concert’s opening work, was a great surprise. First, Mr. Botstein chose the rarely performed original and unpublished version of 1873, rather than the far more familiar, if sometimes discredited, published version of 1889. The history of this work clearly shows Bruckner’s often vexing diffidence and insecurity as a composer as well as the preemptive ways his editors, friends, and “well-meaning pupils” had their say in the final edition. The manuscript-publication history of the Third is uniquely complex: a first version in 1873, a revision in 1874, a second in 1877 (with two differing editions, in 1877 and 1878), and a third revision in 1889 (again with two editions, one in 1890). Since the Third is generally not as well known as the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth, I’m sure most in attendance were not taking sides on which editorial variation should prevail. Certainly, only a few would have heard tonight’s original version live or even recorded. My own exposure has been only performances based on the 1889 edition. What we heard tonight, while obviously Bruckner’s Third in substantial measure, had far more complexity, detail, and visceral appeal than the more familiar later version. At times, these elements seemed obtrusive and bewildering – an unfortunate consequence of one’s knowing only the more popularly accepted alternative. I would have loved to have had a score handy.

Bruckner personally presented this piece, along with his Second Symphony, to his musical idol, Richard Wagner, seeking the Master’s approval for dedication. After importuning Wagner at Wahnfried, Bruckner prevailed in his dogged devotion, and Wagner took a quick look. He passed over the Second rather quickly, but the trumpet’s opening theme in the first movement of the Third caught his eye (or ear). Wagner invited his visitor to return in the evening for a closer examination, after which he heartily consented to Bruckner’s dedication. Apparently after an evening of prodigious musical discussion and beer drinking, the star-struck Bruckner suffered a “morning after” memory lapse and forgot which symphony Wagner had actually selected. Bruckner needed to be reminded again of the preferred work; Bruckner wrote a note, “Symphony in D Minor, where the trumpet begins the theme?” and Wagner quickly replied “Yes! Yes! Kindest Regards!” on the same piece of paper. After this incident, Wagner always referred to Bruckner as “Bruckner, the Trumpet.” One cannot help but wonder how objective Wagner’s praise of this work was, since the original 1873 version is laced with quotes from the Master’s operas. In the later revisions, Bruckner elided some of the more overt references (like the Slumber Motive from Die Walküre), but kept a “Tristan chord” sequence emerging in the slow movement.

Several years ago, Mr. Botstein presented Bruckner’s great Seventh Symphony in a performance that I found deeply disappointing. It was, to my ears, a rushed affair, and missed many subtle moments and failed, as well, to articulate the grand musical architecture of the Finale. The redemptive Wagner festival last summer affirmed my belief that Mr. Botstein and the ASO would be perfectly equipped for Bruckner in the coming years. After all, Bruckner’s unique combination of classical structure, Wagnerian harmonies, pre-Baroque counterpoint, and Schubertian Ländlers presents formidable interpretive and technical challenges. The Wagner summer cultivated a new sound from the ASO as well as a matured sense of the late Romantic style. The ASO’s brass section has become second to none in this country. Mr. Botstein’s approach to Bruckner this evening, while still pushing the pedal a bit heavily, demonstrated a real affinity for this composer’s idiom. The first movement was taut, vibrant, and dramatically resolute. Although there was much here (for this listener) that was quite new, the strength of it all was convincingly conveyed. However, the second movement’s noble opening theme was treated rather brusquely, and the pace seemed to obliterate much subtlety and expressiveness. The Scherzo, a form that allowed Bruckner to combine the delicately elfin with the lustily urgent, was delivered with schizoid perfection. One felt, though, that the Trio, a lilting Ländler, could have been warmer and more broadly phrased. The Finale, like the first movement, had some surprising differences from the usually performed version. The striking third subject, with its syncopated blind-octave unisons, is accompanied by other thematic material (in the brass) missing in the more familiar edition. As well, the recapitulation is far fuller thematically in this early version. Although one was distracted by the differences, I still thought the tempi a bit fast, and I thought that the lyricism of the “polka and chorale” of the second section lacked a certain warmth. In a very Hardyan experience, Bruckner, on a walk home, heard dance music (a polka) from a mansion, while nearby, the body of a noted architect lay in state. Bruckner noted that the Finale of the Third, in creating a polka with a brass chorale, was a reflection of the natural juxtapositions of frivolity and grief in life. One found the two aspects a bit too fleet in providing this poetic contrast.

Mr. Botstein boldly uncovered a new and exciting variation of a Bruckner favorite tonight, and the ASO is now fully burnished for more of this great Austrian’s music. The energy and sweep of Maestro Botstein carried this work tonight – a work whose freshness and complexity invite a second or third hearing.

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