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Bruckner performance shook the gates of Heaven
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Bruckner performance shook the gates of Heaven

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Mozart & Bruckner
at Seattle Symphony
January 8
Benaroya Hall


Kurt Masur is perhaps the most renowned conductor to visit the Seattle Symphony in decades. Until recently the music director of the New York Philharmonic, the 82-year-old maestro is now free to roam, and Seattle was lucky to grab him. He is big bear of a man with a short white beard, straight posture, and an animated way of conducting that only occasionally bothered to beat time. (Good orchestras don't need every beat from the conductor.) Most of his gestures were to shape phrases or give cues. He used no score all evening.

Mozart's "Symphony No. 40 in G minor" occupied the first half. Masur took all the repeats, which with his relaxed tempi made the work more than half an hour long. This was a rather old-fashioned Mozart, along the lines of a Bruno Walter or Hermann Scherchen. While musical and lovely, it lacked the last degree of polish that would have made it special. Although the orchestra was appropriately diminished in size, the strings nevertheless often drowned out the woodwinds, upon which Mozart lavished some of his most exquisite writing.

Most of the rehearsal time must have gone to the Bruckner "Symphony No. 4," which had all the finishing touches the Mozart lacked. Balances were perfect throughout. Many carefully managed tempo changes underlined the excitement as giant crescendos built to hair-raising climaxes.

Bruckner is, for many of us, a paradox: the huge "cathedrals of sound" he builds again and again in each movement make their effect on a powerful, visceral level. Yet the overall effect is often a highly spiritual one. One does not need to know of the composer's devout Catholicism to sense his ever-present reaching upward (those crescendos!), straining to attain access to his God. The listener can either glory in the success of those climaxes or, as I do, feel the composer had to keep reaching because he sensed he never quite made it to the top.

The Fourth Symphony is generally considered to be Bruckner's first masterpiece, showing a complete mastery of thematic elements and orchestral power. I certainly agree. But as powerful and exciting as this symphony is, the later works are even more spiritually satisfying.

Nonetheless, the players of the Seattle Symphony built those slow crescendos with consummate skill and maximum effect. The brass sustained their long evening of exertion with scarcely a flub. (When my partner and I heard this work in Edinburgh, Scotland, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, there were seven trombones; Seattle used four with almost as big an effect.) In Bruckner, each first chair also got a workout, and to select one for special mention would mean having to name them all. Alone at the tympani, Michael Crusoe once again showed - especially in his triple pianissimo moments - what an extraordinary player he is.

My one complaint would be, once again, with the ragged playing of Principal Horn John Cerminaro. He has supremely important lines to play at the very beginning of the work. Perhaps Maestro Masur asked for this (but I doubt it!). Instead of playing the lines with a nice legato line, Cerminaro exaggerated the rhythm, adding a nasality that was totally out of place. The effect was one of drawing attention to himself, rather than to the glories of that opening.

One other small cavil: The employed 1936 version by Haas of this work, to these ears, rambles on a bit, especially in the last movement. Even the Nowak version can last more than an hour; yet this performance was nearly an hour and 20 minutes. I felt the additional material weakened the overall effect.

That great artists can sometimes get better and more intense as they enter their 80s (Toscanini, Walter, Janacek, and Monet, to name a few) has always fascinated me. While I wouldn't put Kurt Masur in the same league, his Bruckner was supremely virile, lacking absolutely nothing in power and sweep. Long may he conduct!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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