Friday, February 10, 2012

Bruckner Fever?

Judging from some of my recent conversations, it seems as if Wednesday night’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s fifth symphony by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Conductor Emeritus Herbert Blomstedt has triggered a wave of Bruckner fever.  Perhaps I should say “revived,” since Joshua Kosman’s review for the San Francisco Chronicle described the performance as “a happy reminder of the old days, when this repertoire formed a staple of Blomstedt's activities here and the performances were grand, probing and closely argued.”  This was before my time as a Bay Area resident (since I arrived around the time that Michael Tilson Thomas began his tenure);  but I am willing to take Kosman at his word on this claim.

The fact is, however, that, wherever I happened to be, the opportunities to hear Bruckner were pretty rare.  This makes it a weird coincidence, that this happens to be the week in which Simon Rattle will conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Bruckner’s ninth symphony including a reconstruction of its final (fourth) movement, based on a thorough analysis of all existing sketches performed by a team of four musicologists between 1985 and 2008 (and then revised in 2010).  Having already made a career out of pursuing the latest scholarship on performing editions of Gustav Mahler’s tenth symphony, Rattle now seems to have shifted his focus to Mahler’s most famous teacher!

It is not as if Bruckner has been ignored after years in the shadows.  The recently-released EMI 48-CD anthology of concert recordings of Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Munich Philharmonic towards the end of his career includes twelve CDs of the music of Anton Bruckner covering his last seven symphonies (the third through the ninth) and two sacred compositions, the relatively short Te Deum and the last of his mass settings in F minor.  My own first serious exposure to Bruckner came from a Deutsche Grammophon reissue of the ninth symphony conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, and his comprehensive Legacy collection includes six CDs that cover the fourth, fifth, seventh, and ninth symphonies, as well as excerpts from the sixth.  (Taken together, these two collections make quite a pair, since Celibidache was known to call Furtwängler his “beacon.”)  As I write this an music search on Bruckner just turned up 1650 CD hits, one of the most recent being a concert recording of Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the fourth symphony on the ensemble’s own LSO label.  Even Jeffrey Tate has gotten into the game with a recording of the ninth made with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

What most fascinates me about this revived interest is that it seems as if the reason I had previously heard so little Bruckner in the past was that he had been consigned to Mahler’s shadow.  This has led me to wonder whether or not the rise of interest in Mahler may have peaked with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth, beginning on his birthday, July 7, 2010 and acknowledged by EMI with a sixteen-CD Complete Works box.  A year’s worth of celebrating may have left the listening public with a craving for something new;  and Bruckner is so radically different from any other symphonic composer that he may now be filling the bill, so to speak.  Nevertheless, if this is a fad on the part of the listeners, it certainly is not one where the conductors are involved.  If this means that there are likely to be more opportunities to experience different approaches to performing Bruckner, then I am all for it!

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