Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: Last scherzo with Anton

The prince of symphonic scherzos? Leonard Bernstein conducts the Scherzo of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra augmented by players from numerous other international orchestra, in this Christmas Day 1989 performance of the symphony in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

by Ken

Last week we got (eventually) to the first movement of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony -- a massive report, I'm arguing, that all is far from well in our world. Next week we will get to the last movement that Bruckner composed, a crowning Adagio that, I will argue, reports that all is way far from well in our world.

And in between we have Bruckner's last scherzo.


A scherzo literally, you'll recall, is a joke. True, this was already a linguistic memory by the time Bruckner applied his hand to the creation of symphonic scherzos. Nevertheless, I think it's reasonable to suggest that scherzos don't come less jokey than Bruckner's.

This past January we had a preview post called simply "Two Bruckner Scherzos," and this is what we heard:

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat:
iii. Scherzo: Bewegt (Animated)

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. and Nov. 1963

Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded Oct. 8 and 10, 1989

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E:
iii. Scherzo: Sehr schnell (Very fast)

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded November 1960

Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded August 1990

I will grant that the Scherzo of Bruckner 4, like the symphony as a whole, fits my idea of "bad news Bruckner" less well than any of the other scherzos or symphonies; the Fourth always seems to me that among the Bruckner symphonies it behaves most like a "regular" symphony. Which is not to say that either this scherzo or this symphony is notable for sweetness and light.

But if we go back earlier, to another Bruckner scherzo we've heard, that of the Second Symphony, in the August 2011 post "Bruckner begins to establish his voice, hushed and clear," while we get some genuine magic in the trio section, which by Brucknerian standards I would almost describe it as "seductive," the surrounding materials are in the vehement-spilling-over-into-violence mode.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 2 in C minor:
iii. Scherzo: Schnell (Fast)

[ed. Nowak] Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded Oct. 12 and 14, 1991

[ed. Nowak] Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI/Testament, recorded Dec. 8-10, 1974

[ed. Haas] Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, cond. Decca, recorded October 1991

[ed. Haas] Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Günter Wand, cond. Sony BMG, recorded 1981

Now the "surrounding materials" of this scherzo don't seem to me anywhere near as strong as those of the later Bruckner schezos we're hearing. This strikes me as an early-announced ambition he grew into -- and then some.


The opening of the Scherzo of Bruckner 9 carries over the misterioso atmosphere of the opening movement, but already in the first minute the movement erupts in violence. In the second minute it makes a wan effort at jollification, but the failure of that effort (quite unlike the magical trio of the Scherzo of Bruckner 2) is announced thunderingly by the third minute.

In our performances, not surprisingly Solti commits 110 percent to the violence of the Scherzo. Haitink doesn't stint either, in a context that's pleasingly clean and singing. Konwitschny gives us something strikingly different -- broader and eerier, perhaps even more unsettling.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D minor:
ii. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft (Animated, full of life)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded Sept.-Oct. 1985

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Bernard Haitink, cond. Philips, recorded Nov. 12, 1981

Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Franz Konwitschny, cond. Weitblick, broadcast performance, May 22, 1962

By the end of the movement, it seems to me that the high tension level created in the first movement has been in no way relieved. Now, you might think, would be just the time for a broad, deeply meditative Adagio. We'll hear how that works out next week.

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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