What: Music of Purcell, Berio, and Bruckner
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: November 18 and 19, 2011
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Writers of music criticism seem unable to discuss the symphonies of Anton Bruckner without invoking the imagery of the Gothic cathedral. Perhaps that’s because they so strongly suggest a connection between the material and ethereal planes – great blocks of sound alternating with moments of otherworldly beauty. The St. Louis Symphony erected a particularly fine Bruckner 7th cathedral on the Powell Hall stage this weekend, preceded by some flashy (if superficial) Berio and sublime Purcell.
It was, as you might imagine, an evening of strong contrasts. This was most apparent in the brief first part of the program, consisting of two radically different works based on the chaconne – a musical form in which a short, repeated melody (usually in the bass line) forms the basis for a series of variations.
The opening work, Henry Purcell’s sublime Chacony in G minor, is a classic example. Originally composed for a viol consort in the 1680s, the composer later expanded the Chacony into an elaborate five-minute fantasia for string orchestra that rings elaborate changes on a deceptively simple-sounding tune. The Symphony strings were truly in their element here, with beautiful tone and perfect intonation.
Beauty, on the other hand, seems to have been the last thing on Luciano Berio’s mind when he wrote the 1981 Corale (on Sequenza VIII) for violin, two horns, and strings. Although the program annotator attempts to make a case for the notion that the work’s focus on two notes – A and B – makes it a kind of chaconne, this strikes me a stretching the definition of the term past the breaking point. To my ears, the Corale is mini concerto that pays indirect homage to the Baroque concerto grosso. A few truly sublime moments for the solo violin aside, the sound is, for the most part, raucously dissonant (often reminiscent of a beehive on full alert) with alarmingly difficult writing for soloist and orchestra alike.
Barefoot and dressed in a flowing black gown, symphony Assistant Concertmaster Erin Schreiber took the solo role and seriously rocked the house. She attacked the aggressive passages (which take up most of the work’s 15-minute length) with athletic vigor, stamping her foot to keep time, but was equally at home the in the occasional flights of lyric beauty. Mr. Robertson and the orchestra were with her all the way, with especially impressive work from the horns, to whom Berio assigns some solo passages that are every bit as startling as the violin line.
Symphony audiences are sometimes overly generous with their standing ovations, but in this case it was well earned. The Corale”may ultimately be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, but it certainly does give a virtuoso ensemble like ours a chance to shine.
The major event of the evening, of course, was the Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner. First performed in 1884 and not heard locally since Hans Vonk conducted it back in 1997 (an excellent recording of which is available at the Symphony Boutique), the 7th is in some ways the quintessential Bruckner symphony. The opening movement alternates moments of great, heaven-storming power and quiet mystery, the Adagio builds to a rapturous climax, the Scherzo swings back and forth between the demonic and the bucolic, and the Finale builds inexorably to sheer, brass-heavy exultation. If you only want one Bruckner symphony in your collection, this would be it.
Each movement of the 7th is a kind of world unto itself, and not just because of the sheer length of each ("In the first movement alone,” Sir Thomas Beecham once remarked, “I took note of six pregnancies and at least four miscarriages."). Time seems to act differently here, with each movement incorporating so much emotional depth that it can feel both shorter and longer than the clock indicates. The challenge for the conductor is to fully realize each of those musical environments without losing a sense of what Mr. Robertson refers to as the work’s “insistent pulse”.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Robertson and his forces were fully up to that challenge. Every decision he made felt right to me, and they all contributed to the cumulative power of the music. Tempi were well chosen, and even when (as in the Adagio) they didn’t quite suit my taste, they nonetheless made sense in the context of his overall view of the symphony. The orchestral sound was delicious, some minor intonation issues in the brasses not withstanding, and balances were very good.
That’s no small task given the expanded brass contingent, which includes four “Wagner tubas” – instruments in the euphonium range but with smaller bells and French horn mouthpieces. Mr. Robertson’s decision to divide the brass into two groups on opposite sides of the stage and place the basses at the very back on a raised platform probably helped in that regard. When dealing with forces of this size, some creative staging can’t hurt.
The complexity and length of Bruckner’s symphonies and the number of musicians required make them relative rarities on concert programs. Let’s hope the Symphony builds on the success of this weekend’s 7th by programming more Bruckner in the future. I’d love to hear a good live performance of the apocalyptic 8th or the more concise 4th myself.
Next at Powell Hall: On November 25 and 26, David Robertson returns with a program more oriented towards the tried and true with Saint-Saëns ‘s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole and Bolero, and the premiere of Juan Carmona’s Sinfonia Flamenca. Second Associate Concertmaster Celeste Golden Boyer has solo honors in the Saint-Saëns. Perhaps this will pull back some regulars who were apparently put off by Berio and/or Bruckner. For more information you may call 314-534-1700, visit stlsymphony.org, like the Saint Louis Symphony Facebook page, or follow @slso on Twitter.