Simon Rattle conducts Bruckner’s Ninth and Schreker’s Chamber Symphony

15 Sep 2008

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Karajan Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker

  • Franz Schreker
    Chamber Symphony (28 min.)

    Karajan Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker

  • Anton Bruckner
    Symphony No. 9 in D minor (64 min.)

Anton Bruckner did not quite reach the – since Beethoven – magical boundary of nine completed symphonies. For him as well, the Ninth, which, like Beethoven’s, is in D minor, was to remain his last symphony; despite a complete outline and extensive sketch material, the composer was nevertheless unable to finish the Finale. Thus, Bruckner’s symphonic legacy, which he dedicated to the “beloved God”, contrary to every tradition ended with a slow movement – and in the “wrong” key of E major.

Although the work complies with the strict thematic and dramaturgical architecture we know from the composer’s earlier symphonies, at the same time the far more radical and, in passages, shockingly dissonant harmony seems to fling the door to modernism wide open. Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker performed the symphony in September 2008 in the three-movement version, before presenting a completed version of the last movement, reconstructed from the sketches, in 2012.

Whereas Anton Bruckner suffered from a lack of public recognition all his life and was not acknowledged as one of the most important composers until after his death, the situation of his Austrian countryman Franz Schreker was just the opposite. After the phenomenal success of his operas, in particular, he was almost completely forgotten when the National Socialists came to power. Deprived of his positions by the new regime, the composer died in Berlin in 1934. Not until the 1970s did a Schreker renaissance begin, which led to a rediscovery of both his operas and instrumental works.

The Chamber Symphony, which was composed in 1916 for an anniversary of the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts, shows Schreker at the height of his seductively dazzling artistry. As a master of transition, the composer lets his thematic inspirations develop from each other metamorphically. The traditional sequence of movements is still recognizable, but flows together in a single stream of sound. Simon Rattle conducts the work with the Orchestra Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Music for God and the World

Symphonies by Anton Bruckner and Franz Schreker

This programme of two late Romantic Austrian orchestral masterpieces, both written in Vienna, only appears homogeneous. In fact, its creators were almost diametrically opposite artistic figures: the deeply pious, provincial Catholic symphonist Anton Bruckner and the cosmopolitan, hedonistic, Catholic-Jewish opera composer Franz Schreker.

Schreker, son of a travelling court photographer, grew up in impoverished circumstances, but his musical gifts were recognized and fostered early on. In 1892 a scholarship enabled him to study at the Vienna Conservatory. After first making his name as a conductor, in 1912, with the triumphant premiere of his opera Der ferne Klang, he began a rapid ascent. By 1918, with the no less sensational success of Die Gezeichneten, he had become, along with Richard Strauss, the most frequently performed opera composer in the German-speaking world. His career reached its summit in 1920 when he was appointed director of the Berlin Musikhochschule, but then began a precipitous descent. In the age of “New Objectivity” his music was suddenly criticized as outmoded for its sultry luxuriance, and his libretti, steeped in theories of psychoanalysis, were chided for their morbid decadence. His end was tragic. In 1933 the Nazis stripped him of his positions, but he delayed in emigrating. Franz Schreker was not yet 56 in March 1934 when he succumbed in Berlin to a stroke.

To say that Schreker’s Chamber Symphony for 23 instruments, his most important instrumental work, follows the model of an uninterrupted four-movement cycle says little about its internal dramatic character. That Lisztian formal scaffolding is discernible in the impressionistically shimmering slow introduction and quick main movement, the haunting Adagio, the cheeky scherzo and trio and the varied recapitulation that concludes with a D major epilogue. And yet, in the introduction and main movement there are, despite a wealth of related motivic material, no conventional themes. The slow movement, too, draws on seemingly random moments from the introduction to develop the work’s riotous climax. How different from another Viennese Chamber Symphony of the period – Schoenberg’s of 1906 – a difference well expressed by the musicologist Rudolf Stephan: “Music for Schreker was essentially sonority and not, as for Schoenberg, ideas. Sound is what Schreker cultivated; everything else in music for him was subordinate.”

There are few symphonies that exhibit such pathos and grandeur as Bruckner’s Ninth, which the composer, having dedicated his Eighth Symphony to Emperor Franz Joseph I, reportedly intended to offer to his “dear God”. Bruckner began the Ninth in 1887 and worked on it over his remaining nine years of life, interrupting composition to undertake ill-advised revisions of some of his earlier symphonies. He died before completing it and left behind a three-movement torso, ending with a sublime slow movement that only enhances the work’s valedictory qualities.

Clearly Bruckner was aware of the symbolic implication of composing his own Ninth in the key of Beethoven’s last symphony, also in D minor, and his feelings of awe and responsibility at the prospect of producing a symphonic testament can be sensed in certain novel formal details. Unlike the beginning of his previous symphonies, Bruckner here fills the void of a vibrating “primal state” with elemental building blocks rather than with a ready-made theme: the majestic unison falling-octave idea finally introduced by the whole orchestra in bar 63 is therefore the result of a musical process. This, as the German musicologist Wolfram Steinbeck points out, has consequences for the rest of the movement – in such unorthodox features as the veiled beginning of the recapitulation and the conclusion based on previously undeveloped material.

The Scherzo begins in daring harmonic ambiguity, drastically juxtaposing dancelike pizzicato with brutal stomping – the machinelike motor rhythms seem to anticipate Shostakovich. By stark contrast, the delicate F sharp major Trio rushes past like one of Mendelssohn’s elfin scherzos.

Finally the Adagio, Bruckner’s last completed movement: nearly half an hour of the most elevated music imaginable, encoded with sacred musical ciphers, quasi-self-quotations and autobiographical features. This is the profession of faith of a gravely ill artist who has already made his last will and testament, and yet it also contains its share of surprising compositional gestures, beginning with the bold leap of a ninth before functional harmony is established. A long development, an enormous dramatic intensification and a shattering climax, broken off abruptly, must still be endured before the music finally achieves the celestial woodwind radiance of E major. Even this was not Bruckner’s final word: he was still working on the Finale in the last days of his life.

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