New York Philharmonic/Mehta – Bruckner 8

Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version, edited Nowak]

New York Philharmonic
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 12 January, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Zubin Mehta. Photograph: Oded AntmanThere should be little doubt that Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is one of the great masterpieces of the late-Romantic period. But he had much difficulty with it. He suffered severe anguish, almost to the point of suicide, because of its initial rejection by two important musical figures, conductor Hermann Levi (who premiered Wagner’s Parsifal) and musicologist Josef Schalk. But he persevered, and spent three years re-writing the symphony. Even with some radical changes made in response to Levi’s and Schalk’s criticisms, the Eighth still encountered problems that caused the premiere to be delayed until 18 December 1892, when the Vienna Philharmonic performed it under Hans Richter. Critic Eduard Hanslick attended but he left before the finale. His disdain for Wagner’s music probably prejudiced him against Bruckner, whose adulation of the German composer influenced his music.

During the 1930s, Robert Haas (among others) took it upon himself to “purify” Bruckner’s Eighth from revisions that he believed unwarranted. The resulting edition was published in 1939 and soon became the version of choice for conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler (who gave its premiere but later favored the edition by Schalk and Max von Oberleithner), Herbert von Karajan, Bernard Haitink, Günter Wand and Eugen Jochum (who also changed his mind, preferring the edition by Leopold Nowak). Haas claimed that his emendations merely restored passages that had been excised by Bruckner at the insistence of Levi and Schalk, and that the composer regretted. But after World War Two, Haas’s edition was discredited as politically motivated (under the influence of Nazi principles). As a result, Leopold Nowak edited the 1890 version for the International Bruckner Gesellschaft, excised whole passages that Haas had inserted in his edition from Bruckner’s initial version (as well as some that were devised by Haas himself), and thus tightened the structure of the Adagio and the finale as well as refined harmonic motion, clarifying orchestral textures and making a few instrumental adjustments.

Zubin Mehta opts for Nowak’s version. Conducting from memory, Mehta concentrated upon matters of style, rhythmic motion and linear phrasing. He has complete grasp of the three elements necessary to bind the symphony’s four movements together without causing the music to become loose-limbed, mechanical or segmented. Mehta keeps the music moving so that repeating rhythmic patterns take on an ostinato quality but also generate and maintain underlying tension, particularly during long passages when the music builds to an enormous climax (such as in the opening movement and the Adagio). He emphasizes linear flow with only a few hesitations at highpoints (adding luftpausen before each of the two massive chords that highlight the climax of the slow movement), thus producing a kind of continuum that both maintains rhythmic vitality and generates an intensity that increases as the music develops without losing control of the tempo. He melds lyrical thematic material with its more dramatic and energetic contrasting subjects so that they almost fuse together.

Mehta established just the right initial tempo for each movement, and he maintained control of it with remarkable consistency throughout long stretches and when he returned to it after lengthy diversions. His intuitive sense of how to shape a long build-up with increasing tension but without affecting the pace is impressive, particularly in the outer movements. When the Wagner tubas entered during a powerful passage, they nearly blew a hole in the roof! But later Mehta put them in better perspective. The scherzo balanced a fleeting first subject with a song-like trio, its second theme graced by Philip Myers’s stunning horn solo and the cellos’ gorgeous treatment of the theme’s reprise.

The highlight of this performance was the great Adagio, with its awesome climax that gives the impression of a vision of heaven’s glory. From the mysteriously hushed opening, with its sustained tones in syncopated rhythms that produce the effect of floating in space, the movement gradually opened to full bloom, perfectly shaped and emitting a mellifluous glow. Cellos sang the serene second theme with captivating warmth; soft horn and trombone solos seemed to light the heavens of our imagination. A sense of yearning for a vision of the eternal grows steadily as the movement develops, each sequential build-up falling short of fulfillment until the sky finally opens up and the movement reaches its long sought-after goal. It is a magnificent moment, magnificently played.

I would have preferred Mehta to jump right into the finale, for it jolts us out of serenity with propulsive rhythms energizing the majestic first theme. (Did John Williams have this music in mind when writing for Star Wars?) A strong and vital treatment of the first subject was perfectly balanced with the warm lyricism of the second. Throughout the entire performance, a subtle sense of continuous motion avoided rhythmic stiffness. Mehta broadened the quotation from the first movement that appears in the finale, giving it great weight and reinforcing its dramatic power. A mysterious aura emerged from the beginning of the coda that drew us onward as it was gradually transformed into a thrilling conclusion, ending with reinforced emphasis on the last three notes.

The New York Philharmonic played superbly for its former Music Director (from 1978 to 1991), with commitment and concentration, producing a full-bodied sonic blaze during climaxes and tender emotions in lyrical passages.

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