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, September 24, 2010

BBC: Edinburgh Internat'l Festival. Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Most. Bruckner Eighth (original 1887 version). 17.08.10.

This is the first encounter I recall of original 1887 version of the Bruckner Eighth Symphony with an American orchestra. Only six recordings exist by American bands of the standard 1890 version – two of them Cleveland under Szell and Dohnanyi. On close scrutiny, there is much to be gained by revisiting this version of the Eighth even with its greater eccentricities and it having been judged as inferior during Bruckner’s time.

This is music of more elaborate, brighter character than its altogether more obviously brooding revision three years later. It is here more confident in its heroic stance, and also hardly ever wary of extent to which it takes certain things - occasionally to great lengths. It is also more clearly, with certain turns of phrase, especially while approaching cadences, more reminding of the Seventh - the original Eighth’s ties to it altogether closer than the revision lets us hear. The greater fervor, more confident striving toward certain goals (and making at least one – achievement of huge cadence in C Major – twice prematurely) also indicates a closer bond with the Seventh one has always assumed contrasts altogether very much with the Eighth.

With his Clevelanders, Franz Welser-Most certainly might indeed be best suited to the original version of this piece. His remarks of finding a kinship between the music of Bruckner and John Adams perhaps makes anachronistic some emphasis, such as bright projection of overt qualities this music has to offer, such as comes naturally to Cleveland - here even while achieved to somewhat detached effect. Repetitiveness of certain figuration in a fidgety way - getting achievement of climax to a line or cadence timed just right, I suppose - does carry some appeal to it, given what influence on the music of John Adams this music must have had long by now.

Franz Welser-Most’s sense of shape to a still steeply arched first movement was intact, but loosely achieved. A slightly rushed start to this movement hesitated to assume definite profile until loud full brass entrance with opening statement for it. Strings were warm with second subject, with there being greater fervor, patience in shaping it possible. Jagged character of third theme group got realized well, if resulting in some choppy playing – and with rushing towards cadences, making all sound very bright, but lacking in a certain amount of fire to infuse it from within and carry forward what qualities this music borrows from its predecessor. Voiced very well, the diaphanous quality of woodwind section descant over inverted second theme in the Development was distinctive, but worked into making too insistently paced a traversal of sequence of restating first theme in the brass. Very bright cadence on G Major replaces our hearing broad, repetitive descending line repeated on solo flute over ‘Annunciation’ in darkly placed back trumpets. Pointing of ‘Annunciation’ on trumpets here - with more swirling about than in 1890, insufficiently prepared here, became weightless, streamlined.

Good focus got restored for second theme reprise, but highly plaintive and less heavily scored, but all the same fully achieved ‘Annunciation’ at last sounded here curiously on verge of expressionistic with so much uncertainty for effectively preparing it. Tug underneath final achievement of C Major to close the first movement also got undercut, helping leave one with the uneasy perspective of there being lack of depth to what had transpired thus far.

Supple play was made of the scherzo, although with strings sounding a bit precariously thin at its outset. Pointing of here apparent ricochet of upbeats between different brass was confident, but seemingly devoid of firming up shape of what in still more determined fashion – tremolo lines in the strings – really unify and carry this music forward. Diaphanous quality to string playing carrying forward began to detach from the enveloping in mystery of this music itself.

The ‘deutscher Michel’ folk-like character of figure spinning over and over again, but more frequently in 1887 to complete shape thereof than in 1890 is the more bucolically gawky for achieving such. Such quality also got partly missed here – for contentment with brightly virtuosic achievement of so much figuration by especially Cleveland strings and brass itself. Simplicity of the trio section here though was mostly well observed. Absorption however into the almost Gallic diaphanous quality (even without harps – not to get added until 1890) of textures at crest of striving, ascending lines replaced full achievement of line ascending its way into them.

The Adagio, Welser-Most’s most satisfactory movement here, started off with good measured pace – if with curious buzz from violins on their opening broad line. Harmonic change within descending lines to emanate from the opening to this got somewhat smoothed out, but with more circumspect shaping of it all, better avoiding Mantovani effect over harps, in full, tighter reprise of opening statement here. A fully achieved sense of repose took over for long expanse to follow, opening with ardently shaped second theme. Bruckner’s formally expected ending rhetoric to later reprise of first theme - where in 1890 very brief segue is made instead to second theme, matched well sense of being, without compromise of line, well settled into well stretched out peaceful oasis here – even if without quite fully achieved sense of what got us there. Cleveland strings made lovely cantabile of varied second theme transition into next, flowing sextuplet building reprise of the first theme.

Dramatic shaping of the more elaborate, winding (than 1890) trajectory to follow was mostly convincing, if a little distracting a certain involvement, absorption elsewhere with the sound Cleveland was showing they could produce for its own value alone – resulting in gratuitous smoothing out of some harmonic progressions therein. Written in anticipation of harmonic progression to guide opening of the finale, that the Georg Tintner makes on Naxos sound as though almost lifted from the Seventh, got also missed for what lovely sound could get produced – but all eventually working towards focused view overall of lengthier conclusion to the Adagio.

Instability behind guiding impetus to drive forward much of the finale of the Bruckner Eighth Symphony became a critical issue here. Welser-Most had his strings enter from ever so slightly behind the beat for an overall streamlined perspective to the driving opening - all causing momentary uncertainty for the brass in how to enter once or twice. Welser-Most then added extra dose of stringendo to reaching up with line through refrain to initially despondent and flat-line sounding second subject here. His pulling back for immediate start-over of the refrain, very well replaced in 1890, made an already awkward moment in Bruckner sound as through making alert for there to be immediately handy a bottle of Dramamine. Welser-Most then applied good weight to the third subject group, through smooth transition, extended coda – third subject derived accompaniment in strings now more prudently accented before beat with repeat-pitch grace notes or illusion thereof. Weighting down of broad string figuration under brass in loud re-affirmation of E-Flat Minor was stodgy.

Dragging of the beat continued to persist until in the Development loud repeated descending inversion of the first theme in the brass, which Welser-Most then rushed –making this listener even more furtively want to press for a bottle of Dramamine. Tentative retransition was then made over repeat-note triplets to carry line forward – with Welser-Most first allowing too much slack, then muscling string figuration toward starting the Recapitulation to compensate. Erratic also was Welser-Most’s bending of descending brass lines off the crest to this to something bordering on jazzy or salsa in effect. Solo horn ending section by making portamento throughout single pitch clearly indicated already troubled intonation from the brass - until re-gathering of poise to recapitulate the second theme.

After well marked change of cadence most unique to this original or 1887 version, Welser-Most regained control of line to follow into the coda section, until brass made strange bend, almost yawn out of reprise of the main theme of the first movement. Brief change to tonal center a whole tone above – D Minor – offered tempting opportunity to expressively shape descant lines in the violins, yet transition to this got smoothed out to where it no longer offered any semblance of profile. With proportions of three-fourths to eighty percent of the finale to this mostly somewhat awry – indicative of conductor having taken on some of what is here for granted – robbed then was cumulatively well extended cadence and C Major chord of feeling that all must remain there for so long.

While one should be grateful for even this chance to hear 1887 performed – for insights it provides into the genesis of this masterpiece, one might have expected better of Cleveland - their virtuosity so clearly evident - than especially their haphazard taking on of the finale. This music can not compensate for any inability to grasp form that even here with its self-consciously lengthy anchoring of cadences and of transitions between sections, still makes very compelling blueprint for all of what was eventually to come.

There is also to account for here the brighter tone, the more overt fervor of the 1887 version, with as so well subtly pointed out by Georg Tintner a tug toward being able to hear allusions this symphony makes to its immediate predecessor. With all this beautifully intact, the last three symphonies of Bruckner ultimately indeed do become one great opus in a sense, unrivalled by anything else. Welser-Most, with the shallow, two-dimensional perspective with which he offered much of the 1887 version, that in return denied him security this way – missed making anything out of such links. Thank heavens, for such insights this version offers, it still exists, that even with a little greater formal clarity the revision offers, in its even challenging the Sixth as what Bruckner openly considered his most daring or adventurous. Even with what further horizons the Ninth opens out, nothing Bruckner wrote could deserve this status more than his Eighth.

In provocatively, jauntily irreverent fashion, the program opened with Cleveland veteran keyboardist Joela Jones playing the Variations on ‘America’ and Postlude in F by Charles Ives. She made utter simplicity of rhetoric out of both works - with their wittily odd turns of phrase, exotic changes of harmony, slithering about. The holding on to several pitches in the latter, usually so misplaced as though not at all to belong well to any chord out of which good cadence can emerge, was conspicuous, as intended.

In-between - for small ensemble of brass, bells, percussion – came the Ives piece From the Steeples to the Mountains, just somewhat in Ivesian fashion taken on haphazardly here. It was so more than in how it is written – as window for some of what was to come with Bruckner on the meatier, weightier second half of this Cleveland Orchestra expo for one out of two evenings at Edinburgh. For a much warmer, fuller take on the 1887 Bruckner Eighth, the Georg Tintner recording, a real bargain, also has always supple but the firmer grip on the architectonics of this than does Welser-Most or especially late-career Gunter Wand (1890 only) for either version.

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