10 November, 2009

Concert Review: Bruckner Orchestra Linz - Dennis Russell-Davies

Concert Review: Bruckner Orchestra Linz - Dennis Russell-Davies

November 9, 2009, Avery Fisher Hall
Bruckner Orchestra Linz - Renaud Capucon - Dennis Russell-Davies
Glass - Bruckner

Addendum: NY Times review

This little known orchestra mean something special to me and I'm ecstatic to have caught up with them in NYC this time.

In the early eighties a friend and I went to the annual Brucknerfest at the Brucknerhaus in Linz. My friend is none other than the person who introduced me to Bruckner and Sibelius, composers who have remained my favorites unto today. Imagine, mostly bored undergradute students (Chinese, Koreans etc, and a senior citizen gwei-lo ex-ranked player!) at Columbia University playing pingpong every afternoon (even when there was no class)! My friend talked to me and one day lent me some LPs and I was an instant convert.

Linz is to Bruckner as Salzburg is to Mozart. It was rather bucolic and conservative/Austrian country in those days; I don't know about now. I still remember the Bruknerhaus where we went to hear a Bruckner symphony performed by this very orchestra, very ably. Most memorable was the way the hall reminded you of show time: instead of some kind of bell and gong thing, the mighty brass opening theme of Bruckner's 5th symphony was played repetitively. Effective and appropriate.

I have always liked Dennis Russell-Davies, familiar through attending the American Composer's Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonic (see wikipedia entry too). So it was not surprising that the concert opened with the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Philip Glass, whose music he has always championed. From the word go, it was clear the orchestra is superbly attuned to this music. The hall was awash in Glass' throbbing and ostinating sound. With this kind of minimal music, when it's played played routinely one is apt to find it repetitive, yet when it's well played, as it was here with the greatest attention to the pulse, it is strangely mesmerizing. In the outer movements, one heard the power in reserve, imagined looming horizons and felt the wheel of time. Unfortunately, the power of the playing frequently drowned out the soloist Renaud Capucon, who played valiantly, with good intonation and feeling, but it was too evident he has too small a tone for the large hall (one even feels that on his recordings). Only in the tender slow movement was he able to project more.

Just a few bars into the Glass piece and knowing what was to come, I began to see the logic of the programing. With its frequent crescendos and decrescendos (some rather sudden) and ostinati, Glass really is not unlike Bruckner, even if they inhabit different spiritual worlds. The realization was a wonder, something that only happens in the concert hall, in intelligently planned programs.

The Bruckner 4th Symphony was played for all its worth, with only one caveat. The 1874 version was employed (they recorded it for Arte Nova and the complete box shall appear soon). Now, I had previously heard the 1874 version by Inbal (Teldec CD) many years ago, and I remember I was rather dis-oriented by it. Now, in the live performance I was able to really sink my teeth into the original version, much more than could have been done listening to it at home, where attention usually falters. I confess I still much prefer the 1888 version (what we usually hear, more or less), but I found the performance fascinating. Davies held a tight rein and was attuned to the constant dynamic changes, keeping the rather repetitive passages fresh while maintaining the long line. With the excellent orchestral playing, the performance held together rather well, lasting almost ninety minutes! My only caveat was the accurate but piercing trumpets which in balance overwhelmed the trombones (partly an acoustic problem I guess). Otherwise the orchestra played with great verve and character, refined and robust in turns.

The concert was VERY poorly attended, with most people in the orchestra and empty tiers. As I walked up to my usual third tier box a nice usher on the first tier told us we could sit there, in the more expensive seats. Like everyone else, I took advantage of that but afterward wondered whether that was a smart move. The sound I think is not as good lower down, sometimes reverberant. Sounds familiar?

As with Bruckner, not to mention in less polished original versions, after each movement many people left. Fortunately, those who remained managed to give the orchestra and Davies the curtains calls they deserved.

I shall get the Davies Bruckner cycle when it comes out. Let us not forget Capriccio still has a complete set by this orchestra, conducted by various conductors, and a fine set that is too, though more difficult to get now.