Thielemann, Vienna Philharmonic wrap Carnegie stand with memorable Bruckner

Mon Mar 06, 2023 at 12:34 pm
Christian Thielemann conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

In 1892, the Vienna Philharmonic premiered Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, with Hans Richter conducting. Sunday afternoon, Christian Thielemann was on the Carnegie Hall podium, with the same orchestra performing the same work.

Well, not strictly the same work, as the current most common edition is one edited by Robert Haas in the 1930s, and of course these were not the same musicians. But the sense that this music is part of the orchestra’s living legacy was fundamental to the stirring power and emotional thrills of this performance.

Thielmann and the orchestra are leaders in Bruckner’s symphonies. The VPO has an institutional memory of style, ways to play Bruckner that have been passed down from previous generations of musicians to the ones who make up the orchestra today. While the line of what they have taught Thielemann and what the conductor brings to them is, of course, intriguingly hazy, the results were exceptional.

This all starts with the sound, and the atmospheric opening to the symphony. Thielmann took a marked pause at the podium even before bringing the orchestra to attention, and then the opening F in the strings was soft on the surface with an imposing feeling of mass beneath it. The transition from silence to sound was undemonstrative but gripping, an instantaneous shift in the concert hall from the prosaic day outside to the timeless space of Bruckner’s world.

The strings held this quality through the performance, a sound that had solidity, even at the lowest dynamic levels, while feeling light on the ear. This was the bedrock for a gorgeous and spacious orchestral sonority. At times it seemed to stretch outside of the walls of the hall, like in the lontano quality of the oboe and horn solos in the first movement; at others it was focused, integrated, and massive, with a solid feeling all the way through and full of detail.

Details were the means to deliver expression, not just instrumental colors and timbres but exact phrasing and articulation that revealed what the conductor and orchestra felt was important, like the subtle, but clear and compelling bit of portamento the violins used as they played the second subject in the Scherzo. Also small but profound was the unobtrusive clarity with which the violins played the swaying, syncopated rhythm that begins the vast Adagio. Being able to hear this slow music still moving deliberately and inexorably through time was essential to the deep feelings that came with the passages that loft above, suspended in time, like the heavenly descending modulations.

The Adagio centered an impression about this performance, which is that it was about vastness, the extraordinary emotional and intellectual range and depth of Bruckner’s musical thinking, and the vastness of the VPO’s musicality. Composer and musicians came together completely and seamlessly, the details all part of a volume of sound that was never heavy but that could be as massive and even brutal as it was often extremely sweet and delicate. The energy was always exactly what was called for, dynamics were nuanced and elegant, and Thielemann’s tempos and pace always felt just right. 

In the points of maximum intensity in the opening and final movements, one heard more than dissonant chords and tension; via a great grinding sound, especially from the low brass, one felt an anxiety that made the resolutions that much more meaningful.

How meaningful? One also heard that rarest of things in New York concert halls, absolute silence after the final note. That this came after the triumphant C, a heraldic gesture in any other circumstance would have people demonstrating their reaction immediately, was a measure of the impact that tremendous performance had on the audience.

The Philadelphia Orchestra plays John Luther Adams and Stravinsky, 8 p.m., Friday, March 31

One Response to “Thielemann, Vienna Philharmonic wrap Carnegie stand with memorable Bruckner”

  1. Posted Mar 07, 2023 at 3:36 am by Roderick Nash

    After over 50 years of magnificent concerts that I have attended at Carnegie Hall, this performance of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony was one of the greatest. The emotional impact it had on the audience was unforgettable! A truly powerful and deeply moving musical experience.

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