[This classical music review was written to reinforce this site's image as a den of top-hat and smoking-jacket-wearing dudes. Also, because I enjoyed the concert and wanted to write about it. If you hate classical music, as most do, feel free to skip it. -- P]
Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Zubin Mehta conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.
Also on the menu were Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” and Marx’s “Selected Songs.” Both were excellent, but let’s face it: I was there for the Bruckner.
Bruckner’s Ninth has been a favorite of mine since I was a young child repeatedly borrowing an LP performance from the Fort Worth Public Library. They had some music on those newfangled cassettes, but most of the selection was on records, and this performance — by Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra — was perfect.
The symphony was Bruckner’s last work, and was not finished. It is in three movements, ending with a long Adagio that he called his “farewell to life.” Unfortunately, it was: the fourth and final movement was never finished.
There are those who will tell you that the symphony is perfect in three movements. Since it has been performed that way since the beginning, it’s hard to argue with the perception — but don’t believe it. Bruckner fervently hoped to finish the last movement, and he wrote enough of it that a couple of musicologists have attempted to realize it. There are several recorded versions of the Ninth out there with a realized fourth movement, and I think I own them all. I can tell that, if he had finished it, it would have been awesome. Hell, what he did finish is awesome. What I haven’t heard realized properly is his planned coda, which combined all the themes from the symphony. Legend has it that Bruckner got up from his deathbed and played it for a friend on the piano. Too bad the friend wasn’t a Mozart-style talent who could go off and transcribe that performance note for note.
In any event, it is never performed with a realization of the final movement except as a novelty, and last night’s performance was restricted to the traditional three movements.
I had a ringside seat: first row of the side Orchestra (Orchestra West). Disney Hall is a wonder: with a seat like that you can see all the performers’ (and the conductor’s) facial expressions without binoculars. You feel completely engaged in the experience and the sound can’t be matched.
The first movement was the best. Mehta lost part of the orchestra momentarily with a quickening of the tempo, but that minor flaw aside, it was perfect. “It sent a chill down my spine” is a cliche, but it really happened to me listening to the closing bars of the first movement.
The otherworldly harmonies of the Scherzo have always made it a favorite. Probably because I was weaned on the Walter performance, Mehta’s rendition seemed a little ponderous at times (did the violins have to bow downward for every note in the main theme?), but the orchestra hung together beautifully.
The last movement came off virtually without a hitch. To me, the difference between a top-notch symphony and a lesser group lies in the horns. They’re awfully difficult to play, and it’s rare to hear a symphony performance where you’re not distracted at some point by wobbly horn playing. Last night I heard maybe one tiny shaky bit for about half a second in the whole two hours. That’s nothing compared to a usual symphony performance. That tiny, tiny blemish aside, the horn tones were glowing, warm, and strong.
All in all, it’s a concert I’ll never forget. So even though maybe only two of you are interested, I really wanted to write about it.