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.

Monday, March 7, 2011

DR Kultur: Bruckner neo-expressionismus zyklus I. Jorg Widmann, Bruckner 5. DSO Berlin. Kent Nagano. Philharmonie, Berlin. 28.2.11.

This program began mini-series of three last odd-numbered Bruckner symphonies, programmed together with works by living composers. The Fifth Symphony here got paired with two pieces by Jorg Widmann, the Seventh several weeks later by “Das Gehege’ - monodrama by Widmann’s mentor, Wolfgang Rihm, written on different subject than, but along compositional lines allusive to Schoenberg’s ‘Erwartung.

Much of the Bruckner became showcase to virtuosically display packed sonorities – in accentuating at saturated moments overtly, deeply clashing overtones – impetus too working toward making detached their ricocheting off each other. For his purpose – picking living composer who in fragmented manner has inserted miniature clips from the older classics – i.e. Beethoven Seventh in Con Brio – was in qualified sense apt. Hardly any quotation of ‘the classics’ cropped up in either work chosen here. Impetus for Nagano to do the Bruckner Fifth Symphony was similar to that of his mentor Pierre Boulez – likely heard with the Chicago Symphony several years back. A greater clarity and structural precision indicated as much – with modest nod toward grasping the deeply hieratic aspects of this work. With Nagano, one had to wait mostly until the finale to grasp any (derived) sense of exaltation.

Violist Igor Budinstein and composer on clarinet joined DSO for first, yet more recently composed, pointillistic, less opaque of two Widmann pieces - “Schatten – Polyphonie – Lichstudie II.’ Jostling about of almost exclusively three pitches – with Widmann starting off tonguing an A – A, major third up to C-sharp, eventual tritone up to D-sharp - started things off. Grope upward then made at best thinly harmonized cadence on A – except (as leap of faith) through perceived overtones. Moving about from it in quarter-tones merged with, added, two other most frequently repeated, central pitches similarly explored, manipulated. Snatches of phrase emerged from clarinet, solo flute duo, followed by further sound effects, snatches of jazz riff, decorated by light percussion. Such gesture supplemented wind players breathing into the keyholes of their instruments – buttressed by imaginative lower woodwinds’ obbligato.

Budinstein then brilliantly entered with elaborately varied bow-strokes - legato, martellato, spiccato alternatively overtaking each other – over lower strings obbligato. Toccata then opened the central portion of this fifteen minute work, switching, evolving from much manipulation of broken motif into more sweeping flourish of descending scale-wise runs, arpeggios – type of flourish occurring also in Armonica, but more densely packed therein than here. Interjections of very rapid upward runs, stabbing accent on chords, single pitches made for an ever increasingly mercurial play with light and color in a woodwind, light percussion dominated sonority. For contrast, perhaps for the effect of refracting light, Widmann would then broadly augment figuration in play.

Three, four voiced choirale in the strings assisted in buildup to C Major chord, to break apart into whispered harmonics with low register A Major third to resound from the two soloists. They have been already intermittently caught behaving very skillfully imitative of each other - their own tone colors, effects, sonorities - enhanced by light comments from DSO Berlin percussion. Broken allargando through heavily tenuto marked pitches buttressed a clear ascent into higher, ever growing aggregate of sonorities to ultimately an ear-splitting level. Mostly lower broken sonorities challenged developing broken motif on (mostly) solo viola – toward making final reach to a piercing high C-Sharp. It appeared possible Nagano might have been more engaged with ‘Schatten’ than with Armonica to follow, given the frequently open textures, overt rhythmic animation characteristic of ‘Schatten.’

Armonica (2007) proved the more textured, rhapsodic composition – premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic under Boulez – featuring here brilliantly adept Christa Schoenfeldinger on glass harmonica. (Boulez’s interest in German neo-expressionism seems newfound). Layering of half and whole tone dyads, melisma formed out of which to limn dense texture underneath becomes paramount here. Nagano often stressed citing melodic and harmonic motif to help define parameters embedded therein and characterize individually what colors infuse them. Arabesque introduced on piano and celesta gets mirrored, echoed by internal voicing throughout rich tapestry on display.

Interchangeability of both single pitch and clustered sonorities between harmonica and frequently wind instruments was telling – with, in addition, several electronc imitative repeat-pitch tremoli. Several trumpets cadenced two-thirds through Armonica on a brightly dissonant triad, then cut off for harmonica high and dry to echo them. Violins often high, placed back often on (half-) harmonics would gradually grope toward forming sustainable cantilena - often stifled by much else about. Freely entering concertato of winds beneath would contrapuntally supplement, develop effort.

As though to depict spirit straining to break free, Widmann’s mercurial inclusion of arabesque, especially on celesta, vaguely recalls the music of Bernd Alois Zimmermann. There was in subtler, more enveloped format play with light throughout, even to refract it during closing passages – getting past, two thirds through, pause in the music off muted strings dissonantly echoing E Major triad just accomplished.

This music included inhaling, exhaling wave like motion scattered throughout, while often accumulating, then quickly dissembling aggregates of dissonance, knowingly so. Rise and fall on cymbal clash underneath very first pitches to sound forth on harmonica starting this piece concisely intimated such. Descending scales, intermixed with descending diminished chord intervals prepared elaborate exploration of such device. All faded spectrally away to silence at the end, to at first seemingly establish central point of arrival on E lightly swelled on harmonica. Tone half-tone higher at the very end, recalled in the strings considerably earlier the first quiet major cadence in the piece, encompassing several octaves on just two pitches.

Varied dissociated states identifiable with Widmann’s music meandered into making presence felt during Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. Nagano had wonderful success with Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony at the BBC Proms six years ago in the drier Royal Albert Hall; two months earlier they had recorded it only near as successfully in the more diffuse Philharmonie. Intimate feel for the outdoors through the Sixth’s internally rich harmonic language, more prominently in London, became hallmark of both.

Replacing wooden Gothic cathedral on display before who wrote this Fifth Symphony came at the Philharmonie approximate reconstruction in steel and concrete. Displaced accenting, while not throwing things off completely, became fairly common, increasing one’s’ feeling of alienation. DSO Berlin here seemed to be making good stab here at emulating the Berlin Philharmonic under late-career Karajan – to perhaps showcase the bombast of doing so. Pardoning some overt rhythmic inconsistencies, this Bruckner Fifth was brilliantly conceived, executed, yet with altered mental picture in mind – for which it might cause an orthodox observer to perceive much heart.

Stoic reply from brass to ascending jagged figures all across provided measure of poise, grandeur for – above marked dynamic levels – a too projected introduction to the first movement. DSO strings infused first subject with fine angst within well sustained fairly broad tempo for Allegro to follow. Provocative was heavily marked detachment of antecedent portion of the second theme, each time, from more easily shaped consequents – slightly throwing one’s sense of balance off. Interlude led underneath by horns between its statement and reprise was warmer. Closing section of the Exposition conveyed the most character of anything thus far. Tremoli filling out closing lines sounded slightly more diffuse than warm.

Further effort toward strictly proportioning argument at hand further prevented thaw from emanating well during Development. Remindful of some vestige of humanity still at stake, ascending forceful dotted rhythm brass sounded loose in grip on pulsation under-girding their lines. For further projected voltage, increasing reach from behind became prominent for what remained. Stark preparation for the recapitulation abetted making stilted projected tremolo to accompany the first theme. Profile of third section became slightly exaggerated, but acclerandi to usher in Coda calibrated toward flutes entering well with first theme - brass then too slurred, projected to well emulate them

Second movement opened suitably austere. Descending solo clarinet sixth and sevenths consequents harnessed DSO strings from beginning to clip their parts. Noble line mostly characterized alternating second theme at least until brass rose to the fore to slur, turn epic repeat of the subject. Simplicity of returning first theme thus became disjunctive. – all then to turn unyielding with as a result violins only initially fulfilling, distinguishing numerous shifting harmonies. Stark dissonances for descending brass got understated, through largely streamlined, tempo marked, heavily slurred approach to much else. Pace for this Adagio seemed slower than it actually was.

Strings on subsidiary lines curiously managed cutting through brass to open a headlong accented Scherzo. Overall articulation was too unvarying for much character to emerge well, with strings bouncing down on Adagio consequent derived staccato, then for principal oboe especially and strings to halfway pick up laendler accenting to follow. Weighting, slurred dragging out of remainder up to where all recapitulates however became tedious. Restoring pacing to headlong emerged mildly forced or contrived. Scherzo reprise after more relaxed Trio had better internal lift applied to how it opened, but with things then quickly returning to how they had been before. Bucolic accenting in the Trio, initially halfway picked up, gratefully improved as it coursed along.

It took until getting Exposition underway for Nagano to find good footing for the finale. Due to good circumspection on his part, the finale, consummating the opening out of hypothetical cathedral in question, proved his most successful movement here Second subject began as open-air as well played as might any more bucolic passage of the Fourth; amply suffused strings in playing full out their extended consequents became slightly syrupy, thick.- but while maintaining good line and pacing throughout. First subject right before, on cellos, basses, was informed by ruddy tone and good swagger. Firm pace and accenting was set for framing, closing third subject, with extra reach from behind in the strings to heavily further anchor things – after threatening to come off previous subject streamlined. Chorale interlude to frame imminent large fugue resounded fully, solemnly.

Nagano then paced, balanced the fugue very well, but with strings showing, after thick slurring through running descant eighth notes, some strain. Larger picture remained in focus with precise, light pinpointing for tricky concertato, subtle harmonic shifts within Nagano almost managed building a non-arched crescendo exiting the fugue, then making rugged the transition off recapitulatory first subject over to second - starting off equally lithe as before, but pressed hard forward toward concluding it. . Making way through the rest, Nagano got slightly stumped by a couple of transitions among good handful – strings slightly too bright in the Philharmonie acoustic - all in sight of supplemented DSO Berlin brass blazing path to fully realized majestic conclusion

While fully adept on Bruckner – Nagano cut an excellent disc of the original version Third - his sympathies with the Fifth were less clear. He no doubt is in good company with other esteemed Brucknerians. .Impressive to me early on was an Ozawa performance for PBS ‘Evening at Symphony’ – my introduction to this piece. Seiji Ozawa, also mentor to Nagano, ranks high among most underrated conductors of Bruckner’s music. i I was intrigued then by the seemingly many out of the way, odd turns this music takes. ‘Evening at Symphony’, nothing commercial behind it, following legacy of Lynne Cheney style ‘reforms’, unfortunately went the way of all flesh.

More supple line, formal grasp will not sink Nagano’s Bruckner into emulating flaccid late-career Wand or Celibedache. Keeping unwritten and written parameters in mind – a modernist approach to Bruckner can still work. In keeping with such, the purposefully mostly unresolved descending gestures in brass nearly closing the Adagio, cutting across thin shafts of light groping inwards, should stand out somewhat more; fuller grasp of this music’s mystery however must first take hold. Much impressive still transpired here - if not always meaningfully so. The Fifth perhaps fits Nagano less well than several other Bruckner symphonies; this was hardly his last chance at it.

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