Barenboim, Staatskapelle close historic Bruckner cycle with a moving Ninth
And now it has come to the end.
On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, the Staatskapelle Berlin and music director Daniel Barenboim finished their historic cycle of the Bruckner Symphonies with a beautiful and moving performance of the posthumous, unfinished Symphony No. 9.
Historic is not an exaggeration. This has been the first complete concert cycle of Bruckner’s symphonies in American history. But that word utterly fails to capture the effect and meaning of the experience. These are among the very finest symphonies in the repertory—there is a valid argument that they are indeed the finest—yet, except for clusters of aficionados, they are largely unknown to the general classical music public in this country.
At least for the New York region, this cycle has changed that. Through nine concerts across eleven days, the audience had a consistent cadre of Bruckner lovers and a rotating complement of listeners there for a particular night, or symphony, or perhaps drawn by Barenboim’s status as one of the leading musicians of his era. No one went away disappointed, and everyone—hardcore aficionados included—experienced enlightenment.
Except, that is, for the Andante. Perhaps the most sublime music Mozart ever wrote, Barenboim’s approach was understated, with no improvisation, with a rock steady tempo. The orchestra was with him the whole way, and the internal dialogues—when the piano and bassoons hand a bass line back and forth, for example—were clear and natural. They let the music play through them, and it was beautiful.
That was the one thing, finally, in all these concerts, that Mozart and Bruckner shared together; the feeling that the composer’s world was part of the musicians’ internal life, and they were simply playing what they knew.
One thing Barenboim has specifically done that has been invaluable has been to manage crescendos. Those are an essential part of Bruckner, a means to build drama, tension, and explicitly move the music in the direction of both greater altitude and greater mass.
The long, enormous crescendo in the first movement of Symphony No. 9 followed a perfectly smooth angle to a gorgeous summit, and it was not just an expressive device but a thing of musical beauty in and of itself. In the transitions between subjects, which are vital in this music, the results were alternately elegant and spine-tingling.
This was a movingly honest performance of music from what may be the most honest composer in the classical repertory. There is no affect with Bruckner, there is just him, dedicated to music, devout before the unknowable majesty of God (Bruckner dedicated the Symphony No. 9 to God, and while writing it was conscious that he would not live long enough to complete the finale). The Ninth expresses the mystery, terror, and joy of life through the logic and order of musical architecture.
The naturalness of the atmosphere and drama in the first movement, from the opening D minor chord on, was gripping and thrilling. There was a matter-of-factness about the playing, a sense that the music would present its own greatness, without exaggeration, that grew deeper with each passing measure. Each of Bruckner’s astonishing subjects, even when the music disintegrates then recomposes itself, was played with a sense of somber deliberation and a moving sonic beauty.
The pace was superb throughout the performance; in fact, in all these concerts, one never noticed the tempos, because they were so ideal. Even in the violent Scherzo, when the orchestra pushed the playing to a wild extreme, one heard the music carried forward through phrases and harmonies, the pulse and rhythms implied transparently.
There is no fourth movement to resolve the previous musical arguments, only the Adagio. Ostensibly in E major, it is harmonically restless, constantly modulating—the first great, shining fanfare is on an F-sharp dominant ninth chord.
The playing expressed the feeling of traveling through the delights and anguishes of memory, searching for peace. The focus and concentration of the orchestra, after all the concertizing, was remarkable, giving direction to music that is deliberately wayward.
There is no standard resolution. Instead the orchestra produced a crushing, terrifying climactic F-sharp thirteenth chord followed by a gentle, serene climb to luminous E major. The journey from life, D minor, to heaven was complete.
As the cascades of applause came down, Barenboim stood at the podium, with his back to the audience. Then he disappeared into the ranks of the orchestra, shaking everyone’s hand, one musician among the many who presented this extraordinary experience.
“La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic,” begins with Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI, 7:30 p.m., February 3 carnegiehall.org