I was at a concert: Beethoven and Bruckner

A couple weekends ago we headed to Lincoln Center for a concert featuring music by one of the three B’s and another B that I assume would crack the top ten of B’s if we were ranking them (I’ll file that one away). Guest conductor Juanjo Mena, who I remember from a show back in Kansas City, was there, as was James Ehnes, whose violining I’ve enjoyed from the distance of various broadcast recordings for some time now. It was a surprisingly well-attended and perhaps not-surprisingly good concert.

The Violin Concerto of Beethoven is a tricky beast. There’s a really tremendous piece of music in there, but it really relies on the musicians to be committed to providing energy and substance in a way that other Beethoven works, especially of that time period (hey there, 4th Symphony, 4th Piano Concerto, Razumovsky Quartets), don’t really require. The last time I’d heard this piece performed live, I left at intermission because I had fallen asleep. That performance had all the energy of a married couple who hasn’t loved each other in 20 years but stays together because they’re afraid of being alone. The performance by Ehnes, Mena, and Co. was not that. It wasn’t a fiery torrent of passion with blowjobs being passed around like hotcakes either. It was like the marriage most people hope for: steady, focused, with occasional bouts of intense beauty.

Ehnes was pretty spectacular. He played the first movement cadenzas (the Kreisler ones) as well as they could possibly be played, with double stops as crystalline pure as $4 bottled water and the sort of cool and calm that aren’t often associated with the show-business portion of a concerto. His tone on the second movement was sweet and very even-tempered, not the aspartame bullshit that can bury the movement. The Rondo felt a little heavy to me, but I’m not going to blame that on the soloist. The cadenzas were once again superlative. The band was OK, seemingly punching the time clock at a thankless job in the marriage analogy from last paragraph. Ehnes got a pretty nice ovation for his efforts and played some Bach as an encore. Free music!

I confess that I anticipated a much emptier hall after the intermission. I remember my friend Dan and I years ago went to a concert in Cincinnati in which Libor Pesek was leading a performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto and the complete Ma Vlast. Music Hall, which could easily house a crash-landed alien spacecraft should another one materialize before they’ve cleared the other one out of Area 51, was packed for the Grieg (I’d estimate about 85% capacity). After the break, we were stunned by how many people just bailed. I’d be shocked if the hall were even half full. It was insane (and the people who left’s fucking loss, because it was a great performance of some kick-ass music). For this show, I kinda thought, “Beethoven, good performance overall, are people lukewarm on Bruckner?, this is his least well-known mature symphony…”,  etc. And then I discovered the beauty of living in a place surrounded by like 12 million people. Enough of them are interested in Bruckner to fill David Geffen Hall. We were treated to a quality performance of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 6.

I like my Bruckner like I like my women: with a strong, round bottom and lots of richness. This performance didn’t have the Brucknerian depth that I personally believe ought to be the aspiration of any conductor (anyone familiar with the Eschenbach/Houston Symphony recording knows what I’m talking about), but it was supremely well-played besides. The horns were a little too aggressive for my taste given their tone (they don’t generate the brash, ballsy, bright sound that the folks in Pittsburgh do), but they played their asses off. Ditto the rest of the brass section, who brought the thunder each and every time it was called for. Mena’s tempi were pretty great, giving the music enough breathing room while never losing momentum (of which the first movement has a limitless amount when it’s right). The buildup to the end of the movement can be a spine-tingling moment, and Mena got them close, but the balances between the horn, oboe, and trumpet were off. Fortunately, the full orchestra was lying in wait, and the close of the movement was terrific, the last chord ringing beautifully.

The second movement was too self-indulgent, perhaps, but it was played tremendously. The scherzo was probably the highlight of the performance. It was bouncy and energetic, the scherzo theme brimming with just the right amount of menace, the trio as pleasantly herky-jerky as imaginable. The finale, which is fairly notorious for being a weak spot in this symphony (and Bruckner’s entire output, frankly), was a little incoherent. I used to blame Bruckner for this, but then I heard the aforementioned Eschenbach recording, and he made the finale make perfect sense to me, so I’ve reversed my position to “it’s really fucking hard to pull off.” As with the rest of the performance, it was immaculately played, and as with the end of the opening movement, Mena coaxed a baller-ass finish from the band, the last chord positively buzzing.

Jennifer said she enjoyed the Bruckner a lot. Said she liked the repetition. Not that I didn’t already know she’s the one, but I mean…

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8 thoughts on “I was at a concert: Beethoven and Bruckner

  1. Great post. I always enjoy your not-so-subtle descriptions of everything that is happening within your “space”. Your writing is fun.

  2. After reading your comments on Bruckner’s 6th, not really on my “like” list, I must revisit it from my recordings of Klemperer, Solti, Celibidache and Chailly. I don’t have Eschenbach’s! Hope to revive my interest in this piece. Tom Service of The Guardian describes it as ” saucy with the sublime”! Have you heard the chamber music transcription/arrangement of Bruckner’s 7th?
    (arr. Stein-Eisler-Rankl)! I attended Arties Chamber Orchestra’s (from France) performance (with 9 musicians) in Mumbai, with a little skepticism? Came out most impressed. Just 9 musicians performing the entire, over 60 minutes long, mammoth Piece!

  3. Definitely check out that Eschenbach…it’s wonderful. I’ve only heard about the chamber version of the 7th, never heard it. I will give it a spin for sure!

  4. My go-to for the Bruckner 6 is (you’ll appreciate the bit of obscurity compared to the usual suspects) Leitner/SWR SO on hanssler. And it’s my favorite Bruckner symphony–I’ve never quite understood why so many other people consider it the dark sheep.

  5. I also enjoy the Leitner recording. I enjoy the 9th with the same forces quite a bit as well.

    It took me a bit to really like the 6th. Honestly, I suspect he’s a prisoner of his own awesomeness. I think the first movement is as good as anything Bruckner ever wrote, and I think it’s in the conversation for his best scherzo. But the sandwiched between the 4th, 5th, and 7th through 9th, it gets lost in the shuffle. Reminds me of Beethoven 8 (and 4 for that matter) in that respect.

    What is it about the 6th that makes it your favorite?

  6. I guess I hear in the the Bruckner 6th something like the same inexorable, crushing logic of Beethoven’s 5th. It’s a sonic steamroller. Even with the comparatively light hand of a Kubelik (https://youtu.be/mw0BGNTEAk8 ) you hear the Buffalo Snow Plow of Doom working its way down your street…

  7. As a result of this conversation, I got to looking around, and…learned that Bernstein conducted Bruckner’s 6! I thought he only did the ninth–and I’ve been listening to both Bernstein and Bruckner for twenty years. Eccentric as heck, but you’d expect that. But, still wow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4K-GsihakU

  8. Pingback: I was at a concert: FINALLY! | Everything But The Music

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