New York Philharmonic/Maazel – Bruckner 8

Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 Version edited Leopold Nowak]

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 20 June, 2008
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Lorin MaazelTo close his penultimate season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel chose Bruckner’s gargantuan Eighth Symphony. Clarity and balance were exemplary throughout the performance’s 82 minutes. The strings in particular played with the brilliant sound Maazel has cultivated, and one of the secrets behind the sound is the particularly powerful and precise viola section, whose amazing transformation began during Kurt Masur’s era. The brass never overpowered the rest of the orchestra, yet still maintained its gleaming timbre – and was near-flawless save for a couple of clinkers in the horn section and one Wagner tuba with uncooperative intonation. One virtue of the Philharmonic woodwinds is that they have never ‘blended’ all that well, making the section one of the most colorful among American orchestra, and in the more ‘organ-like’ passages, these musicians brought a startling range of contrasting tone-colors to this daunting music.

Anton BrucknerMaazel eschews accrued tradition in much music of the Romantic era, and his Bruckner has little in common with the approach of this composer’s most revered ‘specialists’. Anyone expecting the opening of the first movement to generate anything ‘misterioso’ were no doubt surprised by music that sounded alternately angst-tinged and heroic – with many passages emulating Bruckner’s hero Wagner . Maazel opted for a slower tempo during the hushed ‘call-and-response’ oboe and horn music near the movement’s final culmination, a prolonged passage that made a completely unexpected and favorable impression; Maazel used a steady, inexorable tempo in the movement’s vehement final fortissimo climax and quiet coda, conveying more cragginess than tragedy.

Maazel’s habit of using nuanced dynamics at the end of phrases sounds out of place in much music, but the calculated diminuendos and poker-faced pianissimos that popped up (or, more accurately, down) in the second movement scherzo set off the various phrases and sections that make up the whole without distorting the structure as a whole. The over-refined tempo tweaks in the trio section, on the other hand, disrupted the music’s momentum. The tempo instruction for the third movement Adagio translates as “solemnly slow,” but the music did not drag in the least — and Maazel’s refined phrasing throughout lent a bit more flow and sunshine to the music than one would expect. The false climaxes were stunningly propulsive, but Maazel’s decision to hit the brakes in a big way at the final climax was over the top.

The finale is particularly unforgiving, but the Philharmonic played it with particular relish. Maazel’s tempo-changes between sections of this elongated quasi-sonata movement were not entirely successful, making most of it seem episodic rather than organic, but the sheer quality of orchestral playing overwhelmed the choppy interpretation. Maazel takes the ultimate coda at a faster-than-usual clip; there is no solemn ‘triumph over darkness’ in his approach, but a sense of heroic assertiveness, evoking Siegfried rather than Jehovah.

I wasn’t entirely convinced — but I was far more impressed than infuriated with Maazel’s approach, the New York Philharmonic ending the season as a world-class ensemble playing great music with total technical assurance and interpretative daring.

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