Arts & Events

Bruckner’s 8th Symphony at Davies Hall

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday March 31, 2015 - 08:12:00 AM

On one of my visits to Austria, I stopped at the monastery of St. Florian, a rural retreat southeast of Linz, where Anton Bruckner spent many years, first as a 13 year-old choirboy and later as a teacher and organist. The St. Florian monastery, built in the purest Baroque style, impressed me for its serenity. I could picture the humble, pious Bruckner spending hours improvising at the church’s organ, under which the crypt now houses the composer’s coffin. I do not claim to fully understand the music of Anton Bruckner; but I am sure that a key to understanding Bruckner the man and musician lies in his relation to St. Florian. 

Under the direction of conductor James Feddeck, the San Francisco Symphony gave three performances of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony in C-Minor on Wednesday-Friday, March 25-7. Like all of Bruckner’s symphonies, the 8th is perplexingly episodic. Bruckner composes many small blocks of music, which, on hearing, seem at first juxtaposed somewhat randomly with what comes before and after. Only gradually does one get a sense of overarching structure.  

I first experienced the magic of Bruckner when legendary conductor Sergiu Celibidache made a guest appearance in 1989 with San Francisco Symphony in Bruckner’s 4th or “Romantic” Symphony. The intensity of Celibidache’s famed devotion to Bruckner’s music was palpable; and I found that performance absolutely riveting. To this day, that concert remains one of the greatest I’ve ever attended. Much later, in 2002, I heard Bruckner’s 6th Symphony performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi in the Dvorák Hall of Prague’s Rudolfinum; and that too was a memorable performance. 

While I can’t fault the conducting of young James Feddeck, who gave a workmanlike reading of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony after stepping in here at short notice to replace Semyon Bychkov, who is recovering from hip surgery, I missed the sheer incandescence that an experienced interpreter of Bruckner can bring to this composer’s difficult works. At the Thursday afternoon concert I attended, I noted some imprecision from the orchestra on entrances and exits, that is, on when to begin a new block of music and how long to hold a note at the end of a block. Otherwise, it seemed to me that James Feddeck conducted a four-square reading of this demanding work, utilizing the Leopold Nowak 1890 edition.  

The big question, for me, with Bruckner lies in trying to figure out how the individual small blocks fit in with one another and where they’re leading. Bruckner characteristically alternates softly played passages of delicate poignancy with other passages of massed sonority. Often, in these latter, he indulges in repetitions, which build in intensity but whose insistent reiterations can irk the impatient listener. In the opening movement, conductor Feddeck managed these soft-and-loud alternations fluently. At the close of this first movement, in a brief coda styled by Bruckner as a “Death Watch,” there is a delayed resolution where Bruckner fails to plant the music firmly in the expected C-Minor, although he actually does so in slightly concealed fashion.  

The second movement is a wild scherzo, full of surprising key changes. In this movement, Bruckner makes fine use of two (or, in the score, three) harps, an instrument he heretofore considered unworthy of use in a symphony. The third movement, marked Adagio, is a beautiful slow movement, which despite its tempo marking builds steadily to a fairly boisterous climax before it slowly disintegrates in music of great poignancy. The fourth and final movement takes up the long-unanswered question of where all the preceding music has been leading. It slowly builds up again and again to what we think will be a finale, but the end and its long-awaited resolution in C seems to elude us every time. Then, just before the coda, we hear the trombones sound. As Bruckner said, “In the fourth movement of my Eighth Symphony the trombones come at the end to signify the Last Judgment.” In the concluding coda it becomes clear at last where all this is leading – which, as it turns out, is right back to the beginning. Thus, we hear, if we listen attentively, exactly what Sergiu Celibidache perspicaciously termed Bruckner’s uncanny ability to foresee “the end in the beginning.”