Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Bruckner 9 -- what "cathedrals of sound"? With a detour through Wagner's "Ring" cycle

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor:
i. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious) -- opening

[A] Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 1-2, 1976

[B] Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded live, June 1988

by Ken

Yes, these are the "A" and "B" performances of the opening of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony we heard in last night's preview ("We said it wasn't over till we heard Bruckner 9"), which I described as "very different (but significantly related)." Longtime readers will probably have guessed, because I've used this trick before, that the significant relationship between the performances is that they're by the same conductor, as noted in the listings above.

I want to get to the reason why I excerpted this pair of performances, but first, let me throw out a question for your consideration as we listen through the three movements of the Ninth Symphony that Bruckner actually composed. (Eventually I suppose we'll have to talk about the movement he never did compose, a finale, but for now we will be considering these three movements the "complete" symphony -- and they form a quite satisfying whole to me.) The question is:

Is this happy music?

I would apply the question in particular to the "B" performance. "A" nice enough it its pleasantly generallized way, and certainly makes an effect, but "B" is something else again.

You'll note that Bruckner has pretty well dispensed with conventional melody here, at least until the arrival of the lyrical countersubject (4:06 in A, 4:43 in B -- note how things are already progressing a lot more gradually in B), in favor of what we might call "motifs," which he can treat like melodies but with more flexibility and range of possibilities. This is hardly unique to the Ninth Symphony, but here there's no pussyfooting about it. And in B in particular, which seems to me in every way imaginable more specific, more intense, and more alive than A (starting with the almost violent bite of the opening string tremolos), if you come away thinking this is anything but deeply unhappy music, we're clearly not listening to the same thing.

For the record, I've described the Giulini-Vienna Bruckner Ninth as one of the greatest recordings of anything I've heard. Yet it's a performance I don't listen to much, and that's because it scares me. The last time I listened to the whole thing it left me feeling like I was slogging knee-deep in blood -- and I don't mean in a good way, like as some kind of hard-won triumph. No, it was the feeling of defeat, of total rout.

This isn't our first exposure to Giulini's Bruckner. Notably, we heard him hearing some amazing things I've never heard anyone else hear in the little-heralded Second Symphony ("Symphony 2; Bruckner begins to establish his voice, hushed and clear," August 2011). Something in the piece clearly cried out to him, and the December 1974 recording he made of it for EMI with the Vienna Symphony while he was its principal conductor is one of those infrequent instances where I'm left feeling that he's got it right and everyone else has missed it. And here too what he heard can be described as fairly disturbing.


This isn't a position widely held by the Bruckner Faithful, one of my less favorite among the many clans of musical Faithfuls. It happens that while I was rummaging around online looking for something (I forget what) for this post, I stumbled across a typical statement of the Bruckner Faithfulist Creed, which has as its central image a "devoutly Catholic" Bruckner sitting at this organ (yes, there was a lot of church organning in his musical C.V.) conjuring up symphonies that are "cathedrals of sound." Puh-lease!

Just think back to those opening minutes of the Ninth Symphony. "Cathedrals of sound"? I don't think so.

Unfortunately, we're not going to hear the complete Giulini-Vienna opening movement. I decided that if we were going to hear only one movment from the performance, we would make it the great Adagio, and this way we get to at least sample a second movement, while doing the same thing with recordings by another conductor whose grasp of the piece seems to me to have broadened and intensified considerably between his two recordings, Leonard Bernstein. Here's the opening of the Adagio.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor:
iii. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich (Slow, solemn) -- opening

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Feb. 4, 1969

Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, Mar. 2, 1990

In this case, I think the earlier recording holds up a little better than Giulini's. This is, after all, music of high drama (I was going to say "of obviously high drama," except that I'm not sure it's at all obvious to many of the Bruckner Faithful), and when did Lenny not pounce on any element of musical drama? But again, notice how much more specific and personal the 1990 reconsideration is.


When I first proposed to Sunday Classics-ize the Bruckner Ninth -- a year ago now, I see! -- and thought I was a mere post away from doing so, I started with may have seemed a diversion, which indeed turned out to be, though it wasn't meant as such. Specifically, I harked back to Loge's account of his wanderings, "Immer ist Undank Loge's Lohn"
("'Ingratitude is always Loge's lot,'" (October 2013), when he finally shows up ("Endlich Loge!" the besieged Wotan exclaims, and I think this might serve as a nickname of sorts -- "Finlly Loge") in Scene 2 of Wagner's Das Rheingold.

The demigod Loge was actually charged with a specific task: to search for something Wotan can use to buy back his sister-in-law Freia, goddess of beauty and youth, who has been claimed by the giants Fasolt and Fafner as their rightful payment for the building of Wotan's shiny new palace, Valhalla. The terms of this deal are so crucial to Wotan's authority as chief of the gods that it's engraved on the spear that is the emblem of that authority. Of course it should be recalled that Wotan agreed to the deal having no intention whatsoever of surrendering Freia to the giants; his idea at the time seems to have been, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, and in fact as Rheingold, the prologue to Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung cycle, draws to a close, what do we see but the somewhat humbled gods crossing a rainbow bridge to enter Valhalla?
WAGNER: Das Rheingold: Scene 4, "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla"
(orchestra-only version)

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, cond. EMI, recorded January 1973

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Oct.-Nov. 1961

[shorter version] Berlin Philharmonic, Klaus Tennstedt, cond. EMI, recorded c1980
But then, anticipating consequences isn't one of Wotan's great strengths. It's not really his leadership style -- he's more of an action kind of guy. As we pointed out, it's not until the Prologue to the final installment of The Ring, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), that we learn from the Norns the history of Wotan's spear ("Wotan's bad behavior goes back even before the carving of the spear," November 2013), that to carve it he lopped off a branch from the great World-Ash tree, not just an object of natural wonder but a source and support of life itself all around, as the First Norn reminds us, and in the process killed the great life-sustaining tree, and mythological dawn-of-time ecological catastrophe. Here's the nub of it. (We also heard a more extended version in the original post.)

WAGNER: Götterdämmering (Twilight of the Gods): Prologue, excerpt from the Norn Scene
1st NORN: At the World-Ash tree
once I wove,
when fair and green
there grew from its branches
verdant and shady leaves.
Those cooling shadows
sheltered a spring;
wisdom's voice I heard in its waves;
I sang my holy song.
A valiant god came to drink at the spring;
and the price he had to pay
was the loss of an eye.
From the World-Ash-tree
mighty Wotan broke a branch.
and his spear was shaped
from the branch he tore from the tree.
As year succeeded year,
the sound slowly weakened the tree;
dry, leafless, and barren --
death seized on the tree;
whisper waters then failed in the spring;
grief and sorrow stole through my song.
And so I weave at the World-Ash tree no more;
today I use these branches to fasten the cord.

Lili Chookasian (c), First Norn; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded Oct. and Dec. 1969, Jan. 1970

To get back to Loge's mission, it turns out that, for better or worse, he actually has found an answer for Wotan's immediate problem, redeeming Freia. For anyone capable of looking a step or two beyond his immediate wants, however, that answer -- stealing this ring of the Nibelung of which Loge has heard tell -- turns out to be about as successful as plucking that branch from the World-Ash was. But as we've seen, Wotan isn't that sort of guy. As an action guy, he wants answers and he wants them now -- he'll deal with tomorrow tomorrow. (Well, yes and no. He tries.)

This doesn't seem Loge's concern either. Oh, he's quite aware of consequences; he even spells out pretty well how the drama is going to play out. But in the matter of the search he carried out, he was acting as an observer, not as a participant. Observing suits his temperament as well as action suits Wotan's. From Loge's Narrative I always get the feeling of someone of boundless curiosity, delighting in this opportunity to get out there and see what he can see. (Again, in the original post we also heard a good deal more of the scene.)

WAGNER: Das Rheingold, Scene 2, "Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn" ("Ingratitude is always Loge's lot")
English singing translation by Andrew Porter, used in the Goodall-ENO performance below:

LOGE: Never one word
of praise or thanks!
For your sake alone,
hoping to help
I restlessly roamed
to the ends of the earth
to find a ransom for Freia,
one that the giants would like more.
In vain sought I,
and now I can see
in this whole wide world,
nothing at all
is of greater
worth to a man
than woman's beauty and love!

I asked every one living,
in water, earth, and sky,
one question, sought for the answer
and all whom I met,
I asked them this question:
"What in the world
means more to you
than woman's beauty and love?"
But wherever life was stirring
they laughed at me
when they heard what I asked:
in water, earth, and sky, none
would forego the joys of love.

But one I found then
who scorned the delights of love,
who valued gold more dearly
than woman's grace.
The fair and shining Rhinemaidens
came to me with their tale:
The Nibelung dwarf Alberich
begged for their favors,
but he begged them in vain;
the Rhinegold he tore
in revenge from their rock
and now he holds it
dearer than love,
greater than woman's grace.
For their glittering toy
thus torn from the deep
the maidens are sadly mourning.
Return, Wotan,
in anguish, you, for
they ask that you will avenge them;
the gold they pray
that you will restore it,
to shine in the waters forever.

So I promised I'd tell you the story,
and that's what Loge has done.

[in English] Emile Belcourt (t), Loge; English National Opera Orchestra, Reginald Goodall, cond. EMI-Chandos, recorded live, March 1975

Gerhard Stolze (t), Loge; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded December 1967

Ramón Vinay (t), Loge; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fritz Stiedry, cond. Live performance, Jan. 26, 1957

Observing, in our world, is perhaps the most important task we assign to artists -- to observe and report. Composers, of course, use music rather than words, or sometimes music with words, as in Wagner's case. And for all that Bruckner wasn't exactly a Loge-like globe-trotter, this seems to me to have been what he was up to: observing and reporting, not building cathedrals of sound in the air.


Let's switch from theory to practice and hear the whole of the first movement of Bruckner 9.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor:
i. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious)

Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, Mar. 2, 1990

Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded October 1988

Vienna Philharmonic, Carl Schuricht, cond. EMI, recorded Nov. 20-22, 1961


Hmm, it's looking like we're not going to. Maybe we can do the rest in one more post. Maybe not.


BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor

excerpt from i. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious)

excerpt from ii. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft (Animated, lively)

excerpt from iii. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich (Slow, solemn)

Bavarian State Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. Orfeo, recorded Dec. 23, 1984

Bruckner's Fourth Symphony: Four stories for four movements [1/10/2010; 12/8/2013]
Preview: Two Bruckner Scherzos [1/3/2014]
Bruckner 7: A symphony built on its opening pair of musical twin towers [1/5/2014]
Symphony No. 2; Bruckner begins to establish his voice, hushed and clear [8/7/2011]
Preview: We said it wasn't over till we heard Bruckner 9 [10/4/2014]
Bruckner 9: What "cathedrals of sound"? With a detour through Wagner's Ring cycle [10/5/2014]
Bruckner 9 (cont.): Last scherzo with Anton [10/12/2014]

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