Tonight’s OSM concert began introspectively, deep down in the baritone register of Brian Manker’s cello, accompanied warmly by his section and the contrabasses. Rossini’s overture to William Tell is both immediately recognizable and perilously difficult – virtually every section of the orchestra is highlighted, and quite often pushed to technical extremes.

Till Fellner © Fran Kaufman
Till Fellner
© Fran Kaufman

Much of the opening of this overture was enshrouded in subdued tones – when finally the orchestral tutti crescendoed boisterously, the brass, portending the imminent Bruckner, exploded in full force with clear, rich tone. Most expressive in the winds this evening was English horn player Pierre-Vincent Plante, accompanied acrobatically by the principal flute.

Next we would hear a very classical Piano Concerto no. 3 of Beethoven, performed by pianist Till Fellner, a musician clearly adept at the Beethoven repertoire after having recently toured worldwide with a cycle of the complete piano sonatas.

This was controlled Beethoven, leaning more towards Mozart’s classicism than Bruckner’s romanticism. The long orchestral introduction was played without tempo alteration or rubato, without particular attention to dissonance or suspensions, and with climaxes and cadences which were gently contained with the usual Nagano precision rather than unleashed with romantic fervor. Fellner was a supremely refined and mature player, with immense control and sensitivity – clean, yet affected, and with a Mozartian affect which complimented Nagano’s conception of the piece wonderfully. His quiet playing throughout the evening was the most stunning element. At times, especially during his cadenzas, his soft playing was so smooth and liquid as to conjure up images of Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie. The second movement, a true Largo, was perhaps a little too restrained, to the point of dreaminess. When the wonderful theme of the third movement emerged from the texture, with its sardonic landing point of dissonance, it was a kind of reprieve after the somewhat unaffected lullaby which came before. Fellner found a fabulous tempo for the Rondo, which afforded him the chance to show off his immense range of articulation and style.

Bruckner’s Symphony no. 6 was to follow. One of the most powerful elements of hearing a Bruckner symphony live is the sheer wall of sound he is able to produce with his immense orchestration. Indeed, Brucker is often criticized for not being a “thematic” composer such as Beethoven or Brahms, or for a general absence of counterpoint in his music, but another way to look at his symphonies would be to see them as a kind of proto-minimalism. Bruckner’s music, much like that of Richard Wagner’s, is often about the far-reaching harmonic goal, not the vertical working out of motivic germs. His music, therefore, speaks in run-on paragraphs, where Beethoven speaks in more concise sentences. It is a landscape from a bird’s-eye view.

Bruckner was not appreciated as a composer during his lifetime, except perhaps by the young Gustav Mahler, who would also struggle to find an audience who could comprehend him. Bruckner wrote this symphony during a time when it was still impossible not to be aware of Beethoven’s ever-looming shadow, which had not quite been dissipated by the blazing light of modernism. Therefore, when composing his Sixth Symphony, Brucker certainly was thinking of Beethoven’s Pastoral. Similarities abound in the two works: Bruckner was surely inspired by Beethoven’s use of incessantly repeating cells. In addition, both works are idyllic in nature.

One would certainly be remiss not to mention the brass after hearing a Bruckner symphony. Principal trumpet Paul Merkelo led the brass section heroically this evening, all of whom played with a bright, muscular tone, totally devoid of vibrato, which Nagano allowed to sustain with full power into the wonderfully resonant Maison Symphonique. Bruckner has some of the most stunning climaxes in classical music, which often take the form of howling, elemental climaxes culminating in full-throated shouts, only to be pulled suddenly down into hushed whispers, which for a few moments are inaudible beneath the still-ringing haze of the previous chord. The OSM had an incredibly effective dynamic range throughout the symphony, highlighted once again by the indefatigable brass.

One can only imagine the potency of this music in the time of Bruckner, when such thunderous walls of sound had never truly been experienced in concert halls. In the times before dance clubs and rock concerts, before the advent of earth-shaking amplifiers, the visceral power of this music must have either seemed brash, or celestial in its otherwordliness.

***11