at Orchestra Hall

October 26 and November 17

No orchestra has done more to popularize the large symphonies of Anton Bruckner than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These symphonies were long dismissed as overblown and pretentious–largely because the interpretations of the music were exactly that. Even 20 years ago, the programming of two of Bruckner’s largest and longest symphonies almost back-to-back at subscription concerts, as they were recently, would have been virtually unthinkable. But Bruckner symphonies are now considered an important part of the 19th-century symphonic hit parade, and a staple of the CSO, which is arguably the finest Brucknerian orchestra in the world. These symphonies are viewed here with a reverence that is probably next only to that for symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and perhaps Mahler. CSO performances of the really large-scale Bruckner works, particularly under the batons of such masterful interpreters as Gunter Wand and Sir Georg Solti, are events more than concerts.

Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is the first full statement of his most mature symphonic thinking. Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic who believed his inspiration and composition were a reflection of his deep faith in God and a practical expression of gratitude for the gift the Almighty had bestowed on him. Yet despite his almost mystical religious convictions, he was also forever swayed by the opinions of others more down-to-earth about the value of his works, and was therefore forever in the process of revising them. Although there are ten more or less complete symphonies of Bruckner (the Ninth was left unfinished at his death), Bruckner disavowed his original First Symphony, which is now known as Symphony no. “0.” There are also original and revised versions of many others.

Bruckner’s Fifth is unique, since it was barely revised by the composer. That may indicate Bruckner felt secure that all that could have been said by the work was already there. At first hearing the work may seem enormous and intimidating–it lasts a good 75 minutes–and if it is performed in a ponderous fashion, it can seem to last a lifetime. But in the hands of a conductor who understands what it is communicating, it gives us a sense of the glorious culmination of the Romantic symphony, as well as the rapturous religiosity of Bruckner’s world.

No less a critic than Pope John Paul II was moved to tears here a decade ago at a special concert in Holy Name Cathedral, the last time the CSO performed this monumental work. The pontiff wanted to hear the mighty Sir Solti and the CSO while he was in town, but a strictly “religious” concert seemed a bit much, as John Paul was celebrating a couple of sung masses every day of his grueling tour. Bruckner was the perfect compromise–fully symphonic and yet steeped in faith. The large Bruckner symphonies are often compared to large Gothic cathedrals in terms of proportion and spirituality, and the analogy is particularly appropriate in the case of the mighty Fifth.

It’s often said that Bruckner sounds like Wagner writing symphonically, and in the hands of many interpreters, Solti included, that is often the case. But Bruckner’s works can also be seen as extensions of Classical symphonic writing rather than in the Romantic tradition, which is the view held by Gunter Wand. I don’t hold to this view myself, but I cannot imagine a better exponent of it than Wand.

Although I have seldom agreed with the new CSO administration in its choice of debuting conductors, one notable exception was the 77-year-old Wand last season. It was, incredibly enough, a U.S. debut as well as a CSO debut for Wand, who has been one of Germany’s most important but reclusive conductors for more than 35 years. Wand is so meticulous in his preparation for concerts that he declined coming abroad because of the limited amount of rehearsal time available with American symphony orchestras. The CSO’s executive director Henry Fogel made Wand an offer and agreed to his demands for extra rehearsals–at considerable expense to the CSO organization. The result was a Brahms First that everyone is still talking about and a no less impressive Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony. Wand’s return last month with the Bruckner Fifth–a composer he has special affinity with, as any of his many glorious Bruckner recordings with his Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra will attest to–was an inspired bit of CSO programming, especially given that Wand’s views on Bruckner are so radically different from those we usually hear at Orchestra Hall. You may disagree with his approach, but a different look is always refreshing.

Wand’s appearance is that of a frail, old maestro who looks as if he will barely make it to the podium–despite the fact that he is the same age as the seemingly ever youthful and energetic Solti. Their interpretations of Bruckner as well couldn’t be more different.

The Fifth is one of the few Bruckner symphonies to begin very quietly, but before long the brass section makes its entrance, although far too noisily in Wand’s performance. The strings had a steadier tone than usual, while the winds had a darker, more Germanic sound than the rather bright sound that Solti brings out of them. The interplay between the solo instruments was very good, and ensembling was tight, reflecting the more than ten hours of rehearsal that Wand was reportedly allowed for these performances. The one section that Wand had little effect on was the brasses, who, although more restrained than usual, were still consistently too loud.

Wand’s Bruckner is not the grand Bruckner so familiar here, but a Bruckner whose emphasis is on inner structure and transparency of texture. For those who hear Bruckner as Romantic rambling, Wand’s performance must have been a revelation, for every line, every phrase was crystal clear. In the glorious contrapuntal finale, where the density of texture almost ensures that the sound will be muddled, Wand brought off every detail and nuance with sparkling clarity.

It was helpful that Wand’s tempi were much brisker than usual, although never needlessly so. I was a bit taken aback by how fast his adagio sped by, but on Wand’s terms that speed works. What one hears in this style of interpretation is how much Bruckner owes to the symphonies of Haydn and Schubert. His building blocks are much larger than these composers’, so everything else about Bruckner is bigger and longer, needing more time and space to develop–like Wagner. But unlike Wagner his adherence to form is very similar to theirs. The result is a Bruckner that, to my ears, is high on intellect but low on emotion.

It would be unfair to characterize Wand’s performance as cold, but I came away more affected by how Bruckner put all of this together than having been genuinely moved. Important levels of this music that are seldom penetrated were revealed in sharp relief, but others were left totally unexplored. Bruckner’s own subtitle for the symphony was “fantastic,” and while he obviously didn’t have the drug-induced diabolism of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in mind, it does suggest a certain majesty and grandeur of approach that I missed. Still, it would be very instructive to hear what Wand could do with other Bruckner works in future engagements.

In contrast to the Fifth Symphony, Bruckner significantly revised the first three movements of his Eighth Symphony, his longest, largest, and last completed symphony. The cuts were made on the basis of some hasty criticisms by a junior colleague, Hermann Levi, who, though unable to comprehend the work, felt it needed to be rewritten. This sent Bruckner into a deep funk, whereupon he took up the task of dismantling the work virtually phrase by phrase. We are used to hearing the early version here, so it is fitting that Solti decided to offer the later revised version. The debate as to which version is more satisfactory will never be settled–both have pros and cons–but the best approach is to offer each from time to time for comparison.

Solti didn’t make a very convincing case for the later version. But then the performance was so full of idiosyncrasies that it would be unfair to judge the worth of the revisions based on it.

I attended the opening Thursday concert of the performances, which spanned two weeks so that a live recording could be made from them, an alarming practice that began with the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony last winter. I got caught in the deadest spot of the hall, where it was impossible to judge balance and dynamics. So I came back for one of the last performances to a much better seat. My only reason for mentioning this is that the first performance was not recorded and as a result was far more cohesive. The later performance was recorded and suffered greatly. That may seem strange, especially given that Solti treats recording with a life-and-death seriousness, even though he considers Chicago subscription concerts rehearsal time. But conducting a concert means being concerned with the sound that is heard in the hall. A good hall is designed so that what is heard on the podium is pretty much what is heard in the hall (the old Carnegie Hall was always ideal in this regard). Orchestra Hall, which is one of the driest halls in use by a major symphony orchestra, is not so fortunate; what a conductor hears is considerably different from what goes out into the hall, and balances and dynamics must be adjusted. Introduce the element of live recording and microphone placement here, and orchestral balance is determined by what is heard in the control booth by the producer and the engineer. In other words, damn the fact that there is a live audience who came to hear a concert. We’re making a record here, folks, so you’re just here to soak up some sound.

To add to the insult of making the audience recording-session extras, Solti had the nerve not only to ask them beforehand to be quiet throughout the work–which should either be asked at every concert, or not at all–but also not to clap at the conclusion of the work, so that no one will know it was a live recording. Right, maestro. People are going to be sitting there at one of the grandest finales in all of music thinking to themselves, “Gee, I better remember, no matter how moved I feel, this isn’t a concert–this is a recording session.” Solti should relish whatever applause he can get after pulling a stunt like this. The result, predictably, was that only about half the audience remembered not to clap, so that there was immediate tentative applause at the end of the work. Solti was so visibly angered that he simply stormed off the stage in disgust.

But if Solti wanted to be really angry that day, he had plenty of cause within the ranks of the orchestra, which produced, for whatever reason (too much pressure, I would guess) some very poor playing, at least by Solti standards. Of course, balances and dynamics were set for recording levels, so they were totally off for the hall. Ensembling was tight for the most part, but some major string and brass entrances were scattered and tone was often ragged. The brasses were spent and played harshly, the horns getting sharper and less focused as the work progressed (there were no tuning breaks). The three harps were not in pitch either. All in all the uninspired performance simply sagged under its own weight.

Yes, there were some beautiful moments and some sense of Solti’s usual brilliance with Bruckner. But it was an eloquent testimony to the fact that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Chicago deserves better than crumbs from Solti’s recording sessions.