Bruckner: Symphony No. 8

Cleveland Orchestra/ Welser-Moest

Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 18 July 2011 2.5 stars

Bruckner The deNazification of the Bruckner symphonies – including excising all of the Wagner references from the "Wagner" symphony – and the subsequent counter-reformation to restore the "purity" of the original texts were all hashed out long after the death of the composer. But during his lifetime, the combination of well-meaning friends and students (including Gustav Mahler) and Bruckner's own deep-seated insecurities produced a large number of versions of symphonies 1 through 8 (a stronger force may have had a hand in the perceived incompleteness of the 9th). The term "original version" has almost lost its meaning for this body of work, but no modern hearing of a designated first edition is more jarring than that of the mighty Eighth. Add to this the spice of a conductor who does not possess a spotless image and the performance by the Cleveland Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday evening promised to be exciting indeed.

Franz Welser-Moest came to Ohio with considerable baggage. His reception in Britain was well documented and many American critics were on alert. Coming to a superb ensemble, almost a holy relic since the George Szell days, this maestro had his work cut out for him. Sadly, he did not fare well with the press outside of Cleveland, becoming that rare bird about whom all the New York reviewers could agree. And then, the unthinkable: the newspaper back home, ironically named the "plain dealer", silenced their longtime and well respected critic, Donald Rosenberg, because he had the temerity to point out some of this conductor's shortcomings, which he detected on a regular basis. Rosenberg sued his employer and lost but, in the process, brought the wrath of the entire journalistic community onto the shores of Lake Erie. Admittedly Herr Welser-Moest was not the villain here, but the stain of controversy remains upon him.

All of this preliminary badinage is simply catnip to the Lincoln Center Festival, an annual summer exercise in cutting edge art on the big stage, a downtown feel transported to an uptown venue. Historically, there is one classical music series in the mix and all the better if it has a countercultural view and a bad boy attitude.

BrucknerAlthough maestro must be given his due for scholarship, the performance was ultimately rather disappointing. The sound of this orchestra was hardly that of a top ensemble, trumpets blaring irritatingly, violas subsumed by their platform positioning where appearing in the front stage left pointed their sound boards directly at the back of the stage, brass articulation in general quite sloppy. It is indeed difficult for horn players to mount a different Bruckner symphony for three evenings in a row (and a fourth on the Sunday afternoon), but reasonable excuses don't cover the mushy effect of wayward embouchure.

This was a difficult effort to review because the accepted version of the piece is so rock-ribbed in the mind and ear that every peccadillo of this earlier version produces a slight fingernails on the blackboard effect. In the Allegro moderato opening the composer almost seems to strive for a jaunty mood ala Schumann's "Spring" Symphony. Unlike in the final version many chord changes are from one major triad to another, a pleasant feel at odds with Bruckner's ultimate idea of dropping these same chords down into the minor for a cumulatively tense and dense effect. Thus, even when the orchestra performed every note correctly, there was some inborn sense that this was just wrong.

But even with this mitigating phenomenon, the overall presentation was pedestrian at best. The great Adagio, which many believe to be the ne plus ultra of symphonic movements, is the least altered, so a cleaner judgment could be made about the players' collective enunciations. Sadly, that amazing feeling of intensity fueled by the composer's religiosity was simply not to make its appearance on this particular night. Inner voices were buried so deeply as to be almost silent, and more than once I wondered if I had just heard a particular passage or if my memory had simply supplied it sotto voce. Not the Bruckner 8 for the ages, but everyone should experience this version at least once in their lives. I'm about three over my limit, however, so might steer clear in future.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was really not the "original" version at all, but rather a Leopold Nowak edition of it from the early 1950's.

By Fred Kirshnit

Photo Credit: Roger Mastroianni

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