With the Melbourne production of Wagner’s love-it-or-hate-it Ring cycle in full swing – a thoroughly satisfying one by all recent accounts – could local audiences possibly take in any more servings of hefty Teutonic repertoire in the likes of Wagner and Bruckner? The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and esteemed conductor Simone Young certainly thought so, and the attendance at Hamer Hall suggested that, indeed, we were willing to hold off the Christmas carols for just a few days longer.

Simone Young © Berthold Fabricius
Simone Young
© Berthold Fabricius

The order of the evening was reversed, and commenced with Bruckner’s monumental and incomplete Symphony no. 9 in D minor. One can make several interesting comparisons in appreciating this piece: Bruckner and Wagner, as this programme invited us to consider, but also Bruckner and Mahler, and Bruckner’s Ninth with Beethoven’s Ninth. It is tempting to perceive these various important artists and works of art as one single cultural movement: but the Austrians are a very different people to the Germans, and Beethoven, Bruckner, Wagner and Mahler diverged to the extreme in their religious and philosophical views, and the degree of conviction in their own views.

Like Beethoven’s final symphony, Bruckner opens with an invitation to regard the entire expanse of the cosmos, still and seemingly eternal. A slightly tentative start by the orchestra did not shake the assertion of Young, who steered the musicians through the broad first movement with dedication and confidence. The danger is always that either the very vertical textures lead to a stilted and stagnant performance, or an over-zealous pushing of tempi undermines the stability of these pillars of sound. Young masterfully navigated between this Scylla and Charybdis, maintaining momentum within longevity while also demonstrating a beautiful feel for lilt and phrase in the delivery of the lyrical second subject, her gestures to the orchestra fluid and even dance-like.

The second movement was a spirited yet disciplined display of collective virtuosity, with visceral peaks and troughs of dynamic contrast. The woodwinds, with their agile runs, were particularly noteworthy (not in any way to neglect the brass, who impressed with sonorous pulsations throughout the symphony). The architectonic symmetry of scherzo-trio-scherzo form was finely communicated, without excessive variation of interpretation in the reprise. After such a stirring Scherzo, the slow final movement could never be anything but a deflating experience, not because of the performers, but in a sort of empathy for Bruckner’s own disappointment that the true Finale would not materialise. The conclusion of this Adagio is perfunctory, and suggests a continuing on to some sort of glorious closure: but apart from archival sketches, we are left to imagine how the composer would have completed his final work.

This heavy-heartedness was almost too much to bear after interval, with some listeners leaving the performance of Wagner’s Parsifal only minutes after having returned to their seats. For the large majority who remained, patience through a slow start was rewarded with riveting displays of vocal power from mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung and tenor Stuart Skelton. In this excerpt performance, which focused on Kundry’s failed temptation of Parsifal (much akin to the Devil’s temptation of Christ in the desert), the visual dynamism between protagonist Parsifal and antagonist Kundry was left wanting by the unstaged setting, but this did allow for full attention on what mattered most, the voices and the backdrop of orchestral sound. Where Skelton excelled with steadfast and consistent performance, DeYoung thrilled with the few electrifying moments of seeming vocal insanity that betrayed the inner complexities of her deceptive and devious role.

To conclude this review on a less optimistic note, arguably the sloppiest part of the evening was the program notes, which contained typographical errors, including the very title of the work performed, taking away the polish from an otherwise fine presentation of masterful artistic interpretation.

****1