The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra: DVD promo on NPR - Franz Welser-Most's Guide Away From Strange Places - Bruckner Ninth Symphony

Here was the presentation of one of the two crowning masterpieces among the Bruckner symphonies that proved fairly much a consolidation of something interpretively that is just simply not quite there yet.

One could admire today a certain tightness of ensemble that Franz Welser-Most was able to draw out of the Cleveland Orchestra on this venture into late Bruckner – replacing what at times has been at times from him kind of an internally shallow-depth linear/rhythmic flaccidity he has now aspired to replace with tighter control, as though to achieve greater musical profundity, interpretative depth this way. He has instead achieved here, especially in something so multi-layered as the Bruckner Ninth, a more gaping hollowness and so much empty bombast.

I debated whether or not I should post this review here; the performance under review dates from Fall 2007 and dvd release from the following year. In addition though to there being the dvd release, the Cleveland Orchestra has picked up a residency at Lincoln Center to do four of the Bruckner symphonies there this summer, paired with a selection of American works to straddle right beside them - plus lectures to help explain it all.

One missed in this Bruckner a certain suppleness of line and thus flexible enough negotiation of the vast architectonics of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony. The vestiges of a strong interpretation of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony are certainly in the employ of Mr.Welser-Most – what he has been able to draw from the cultural feeling he brings to the podium and his experience, including in conducting Bruckner, for a number of years now. It, though certainly preventing disaster in approaching such a summit or valediction as this, is just simply not quite enough.

It seems in taking on this score so directly that Welser-Most was intent on eschewing his concept of performing Bruckner as being too tied to the past, tradition of the past. If so, he was found here to be very self-conscious in the way he has gone about it, even if conspicuously so to only those of us intimately familiar with the work at hand. Christoph von Dohnanyi, when he recorded the same music in Cleveland a little over twenty years ago – his Bruckner conducting debut on disc – he also was tuned into by and large the progressive tendencies of this music. In order to avoid rigidity, any notion thereof, he is also found to employ a very apt degree of rubato at times, such as is placed in highly exemplary fashion and in such a way that avoids eschewing modernism stated therein in full relief – what Dohnanyi would subtly make focus of our attention.

Welser-Most appeared to be trying to take some of what Dohnanyi brings to it another step or two further. He has aspired toward something more strictly classical than Dohnanyi in what sound he requests out of Cleveland, less diaphanous for instance for passages of lyricism therein. What has resulted here are numerous passages, especially in its outer two movements, that move in hard chunks, partitions of sound. What has resulted also makes something a little wonky out of a number of transitions between sections, to at times quite curious effect indeed. It is all even perhaps according to a painstaking literalism, such as Dohnanyi avoids partly out of fear of compromising what he does, and that, as an aside here, Hans Graf took to almost absurd lengths with his Schubert Ninth in Berlin last month.

The first movement of this sounded certainly a little rushed ieven also a little into the incendiary breath that fuels at least somewhat the pulsation that in the best Bruckner Ninths is heard indeed to get under way immediately. By rushing into things, overlooking others, the air of mystery and incendiary impetus to this music can get short-circuited, as it did here. All this was achieved without coarse breaking of the line – comical attempt at Bruckner Nine with Eschenbach and Pittsburgh immediately comes to mind - but the laendler accents to violin consequents to introductory statements by brass only enhanced what sounded here to be certainly the start to a very earthbound journey through this piece. Hard plucked pizzicati from the violins moments later excessively understated the variety of dynamics written in the score and varied placement acoustically vis-à-vis winds and brass that usually make for so much subtlety here. As an aside, Christoph Eschenbach was heard again eleven years later on Bruckner 9, as played by the New York Philharmonic, no natural at playing Bruckner either; it especially being so, he halfway succeeded, if still a little eccentrically, at conducting it.

Especially for how it got played in the Exposition, the Tristan-esque second theme group ambled by almost entirely lacking in any sensuality or hint thereof, even with Cleveland string section certainly still sounding cohesive, solid enough. The third theme group, after transition to it (highly interesting place in the Exposition as such) just going acceptably enough, basically went past as just one faceless chunk or block of sound. What idea really dominates it lacked all shape.

The Development, with oboe's reprise of the Introduction, soon thereafter pressed urgently forward. With the exception of keeping ensemble firmly together, for what strands interweave the oboes from the strings, all came across again as entirely lacking in character. Contrasts got minimized for the rest of the section; rushing downward strings for opening of the Recapitulation sounded impressive, but impressive practically in just their own right alone – as quite detached from the overall musical argument. Transition into the harrowing and here understated real (secondary development) climax in F Minor came a bit untethered; both dynamics and weary tone of descending strings off an immensely terrifying chord got entirely missed, in making transition to where reprise of the second theme is due.

Welser-Most also let the pianissimo markings in the violins to just simply go unnoticed by him for opening of the coda after aptly paced, otherwise unremarkable transition into it. Enharmonic spellings in violin section’s strife in achieving one last harrowing cadence before the coda section might have as well been more conventionally spelled by Bruckner for how so few of them got heard. It may be remarkable to point out such a subtlety as this, but long by this point, it had become remarkable to me how much I was becoming reminded of the late 1970’s DGG late Beethoven by La Salle Quartet – while also technically adept, how very hollow, two-dimensional, interpretatively inept, albeit with clearer goal in mind than here.

Mystery and even the demonic quality to opening and also spinning out of the scherzo went by the sidelines in self-consciously hatcheted, even almost clipped attacks by Cleveland strings through so many pizzicati, then especially through the following chord progressions. Equally vain as heard on 1970’s DGG Berlin PO/Karajan, the allmahlich in Allmahlich Bewegter for overt accelerando instead in both, was so little as to no longer be allmahlich in either (i.e., transition into scherzo recapitulation). With too much swinging lift from strings on phrase endings and flute and clarinet principals - flute most brutally rushed through his arpeggi - the trio of this scherzo went by simply too fast - disproportionately so.

After non-focused, slovenly start to the Adagio, much of it went better than the two earlier movements. Welser-Most was found to be especially cozy with the second theme group, with what bucolic accents it offers therein. Arch over huge crest in the line in first paragraph of the Adagio went surprisingly well, given how things had started for it. Cleveland horns proved the very paragon of warmth in making very long legato out of long phrase endings to transition out of first theme group. Strings, attempting any similar warmth later on, rustically proved almost cross between Elgarian and Ivesian in attempting similarly fine rhetoric – enough to please John Adams (see below)- to have aspired to anything Ivesian. Adams occasionally has made himself self-proclaimed devotee of the music of Charles Ives.

Welser-Most handled transition back to first group with just about enough good spacing, but then pedantically scrupulizing it so and rendering it flat; reprise of the first theme and spinning out from that improved from how such transpired earlier. Welser-Most conducted trumpet led inversion in B Minor of the first theme with allargando offbeat string accents supplementing it in such a routine manner that all placement, purpose for it got lost.

A bit too self-conscious to make anything of the on purpose psychologically negating deterioration, decay that Bruckner imposes upon his material, much of the rest of the Adagio proceeded just about as routinely as possible. It also missed proper perspective for the sublime strands of vainly continuing to develop previous material, even forcing me to check score for dynamics on the long weary descent by the strings over brass making cadence into finally achieving E Major. Such is of course the key of the Seventh Symphony, first theme of this with which the coda to this Adagio closes. Welser-Most framed it lovely enough, but by then - too late.

One might rather hear a Bruckner Ninth that fails with panache. I fail to make it more than a minute into the Adagio when such occurs – place where I tuned out on Eschenbach/Pittsburgh so long ago. Still, if the better can be the enemy of the good, so perhaps can the failure with panache be the enemy of the mediocre – the truly mediocre such as this. I just so happen to love the Adagio too much, but have to ask, where was the love here? Where was also the courage of the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Most’s convictions in not programming for this broadcast of the Bruckner – not to mention the dvd producers who shortchange us in truly same odd way - John Adams's Guide to Strange Places? Neither has included John Adams’s twenty-minute guide on with the Bruckner Ninth, played alongside it at the Musikverein at end of October, 2007. After all, Welser-Most in statement previewing his Lincoln Center Bruckner this summer has called John Adams the musical grandson of the Austrian master. Indeed, Welser-Most really may have achieved something, in having provided us such sanitized Bruckner.

In order to further shoot themselves in the foot, Cleveland Orchestra broadcast producers pulled out of archive a 2003 Sibelius Fourth with again Welser-Most and Cleveland, that is in places quite a terse statement as this piece is or can be indeed. Welser-Most at the time certainly allowed less room for error than in the Bruckner here. He and his forces were found here more supple, expressive - all of the Scherzo to the Sibelius and wonky accent or two aside, much of the finale closing it too that went very well indeed.

The first movement proved in Welser-Most’s pacing of it only intermittently prolix and diffuse, but not enough to detract attention from overall line – in part too making something diaphanously, gently impressionistic out of the mysterious tremoli that take over during the Development. The tragic slow movement was good, but lacking sufficient space to envelope a few lines therein sufficiently, if as proved perhaps apt preview for the Bruckner. Welser-Most is hardly known as more to the manner born for doing Sibelius than Bruckner, but no matter. Such has been just as it has seemed as of late.

As for recommending a dvd of the Bruckner Ninth, there is Karajan/VPO on DGG also from the Musikverein paired with his Linz cathedral also VPO Bruckner Eighth - the august Austrian maestro at the height of his powers. As guide away from strange places – with as someone buying on Amazon commented, hard chunks of sound hurled at Messieanesque birdsong in the flutes therein for the unheard Adams on this broadcast (for which I had to refer to the Robertson/St Louis on Nonesuch) – this Bruckner Ninth in all quite narrow perspective filled the bill indeed - and as the work of musical, spiritual mentor, or whatever, to John Adams indeed. John Adams should indeed be very proud. After all, this is the new music director (replacing a considerably finer and quite vastly underrated Brucknerian in Seiji Ozawa – whose Bruckner at times has been better than his Mahler) of the Vienna State Opera conducting Bruckner.

Here was however a Bruckner Ninth, to contradict Nikolaus Harnoncourt, never but barely touched by any portion of asteroid, space junk, or by matter anywhere outside of Earth’s atmosphere at all – ‘moon rock’ that Harnoncourt said imaginatively enough to have found the piece – ‘moon rock’ that the more senior Austrian master certainly himself would have found Harnoncourt’s interpretation of his Ninth Symphony.

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