Friday, March 11, 2011

symphonic spirits

This ghost of Wilhelm Fürtwangler hovered over the Philharmonie this past week. Though he is buried in Heidelberg and never conducted in the post-war concert hall, the great maestro’s presence was eminently felt, if not fully summoned, in two weeks of Berlin Philharmonic programming. Herbert von Karajan’s 35-year reign most influenced today’s Philharmonic (even Simon Rattle still refers to it as “Karajan’s orchestra”), but Furtwängler played an integral role in their path to greatness—and produced their most stunning recordings. Furtwängler was perhaps at his symphonic peak in the music of Anton Bruckner, transforming grand architecture into crackling menace. He also championed Paul Hindemith, publicly defending him in 1934 against an attack by Hitler (and inadvertently destroying the composer’s hopeful relationship to the Third Reich).

Thus, Herbert Blomstedt’s pairing of Hindemith and Bruckner last weekend conjured up Furtwängler, though not in his full glory. Blomstedt has an air of the magisterial, conducting in broad gestures and sweeping motions, and had a firm grasp on the epic scope of Bruckner’s Third Mass. This approach suits the composer’s wide expanses well, if occasionally tending towards the lethargic; the Philharmonic musicians looked visibly less engaged than they had in February under the galvanizing presence of Rattle.

The Mass, an early work revised four times (performed here in Paul Hawkshaw’s 2005 edition), doesn’t have the soul-smashing trudge of his symphonies, but that works to its benefit: it exudes the calm of Brahms’ contemporary Requiem, punctured by moments of brooding cataclysm. Juliane Banse’s heavenly soprano in the Benedictus and replacement tenor Dominik Wortig’s poignancy in the Credo matched the celestial glow of the Rundfunkchor Berlin; concertmaster Guy Braunstein provided glistening violin solos.

Hindemith was a chameleon composer, constantly shifting his aesthetic style to whichever one seemed appropriate at the time, alternately iconoclast, Expressionist, neo-Romanticist, neo-classicist, populist. Before Saturday’s intermission, Blomstedt led a sturdy account of Nobilissa Visione, a suite arranged from Saint Francis-themed ballet music, which exhibits all the tell-tale signs of Hindemith’s conservative period, when the composer sought a place among the court artists of Nazi Germany. It is filled with empty Romantic gestures, attaining a kind of noble sterility. Luckily, towards the end, Hindemith’s creative genius shines through—the brass announce an energetic passacaglia, accompanied by almost-severe counterpoint, and it culminates in a triumphant end.

Perhaps only Furtwängler could have pulled off Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. Bernard Haitink, who understands the golden rule to conducting Bruckner—not all fortes are equal—did his best last night, but the piece simply eludes even the most masterful Brucknerians. It is sprawling to a fault, plodding episodically from whispery idyll to teeming mass, never quite getting off its feet. Only in the final minutes of the last movement, an orchestral eruption of brassy, organ-like grandeur, did the symphony approach the level of the composer’s greater works. Haitink attempted to impose order, bringing a sharp sense of rhythm and a startlingly-degreed dynamic palette, but the music simply collapses under its own weight.


  1. Bruckner's Fifth has always been my favourite of his works and I find it shocking that it gets such little attention. Also the fact that nobody EVER talks about the unique second movement adagio....

    It is so BEAUTIFUL!

  2. I'm puzzled by what you must think necessary to overcome the deficiencies of the composer's work to give a creditable performance. Pace through most of it to get to the glorious end? What was Blomstedt's failure, exactly?

    One could say this about any composer, but I find more rests on personnel with Bruckner than with most others. Lots of orchestras do well with Brahms, few with Bruckner. Unaggressive brass and/or poor orchestral blend make for really lackluster Bruckner.