Marek Janowski conducts Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony
01 Feb 2019
Mass No. 2 in E minor (2nd Version from 1882/1885) (43 min.)
Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars chorus master
Symphony No. 6 in A major (60 min.)
Marek Janowski in conversation with Rainer Seegers (18 min.)
The music of Anton Bruckner has always been central to Marek Janowski’s repertoire. The conductor, born in Warsaw in 1939, recorded all of Bruckner’s symphonies with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande between 2007 and 2012 – and the press and music critics rushed to sing their praises: “A great achievement”, said the Berliner Morgenpost; for the magazine Hifi & Records, they were “highly recommended”, and stereoplay wrote: “One could go into raptures”. Fono Forum among others attested to the fact that Janowski’s interpretive approach had something new to offer: “Janowski does not think much of mollycoddling, or of Romantic arty pauses. Thank goodness, as this allows his Bruckner to unfold unchecked in its desires and urges.”
In these concerts, Janowski, who in addition to other positions led the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin for a full fourteen years, conducts Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Written between 1879 and 1881, its composer once described it as his “boldest” – but from the outset, it was destined to be an outsider in the concert hall. The first complete performance of the work – in Bruckner’s lifetime the Vienna Philharmonic gave a concert including only the two middle movements – didn’t take place until two and a half years after the composer’s death. However, Gustav Mahler, who conducted this performance, created a version that only partially followed Bruckner’s original intentions. Since the first edition of the score also differed from Bruckner’s handwriting in some passages, it took until the middle of the 20th century before Bruckner’s Sixth, occasionally called his “Pastorale”, was played in its original form based on critically edited editions.
The performance of Bruckner’s Sixth is preceded by Janowski’s interpretation of the rarely heard 1866 Mass No. 2 in E minor. Since this work was performed in the open air to celebrate the opening of the votive chapel of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Linz in 1869, Bruckner completely dispensed with the strings in the score for practical reasons. Like almost all of his symphonies, the composer also revised his Second Mass. Marek Janowski performs it on three evenings in the second version, completed in 1885 (again without strings). The ambitious choral part of this extremely appealing work, which was last performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 1972, will be sung by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, a longstanding artistic partner of the Berliner Philharmoniker.
From the Cathedral into the Concert Hall
A sacred and a secular work by Anton Bruckner
The damning reviews that vilified Bruckner’s symphonies in his lifetime are legion and legend. But the circumstances have inverted during the nearly two centuries since the composer’s birth, and it is now easy to forget that his sacred works, in contrast to his orchestral music, were admired even by his detractors. Whereas today Bruckner’s symphonies stand proudly alongside Beethoven’s, his mass settings are rarely mentioned in the same breath with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or corresponding works by his great model Mozart – not to mention the neglect of Bruckner’s early sacred works and even his secular choral music, including once-popular cornerstones of that genre, Germanenzug and Helgoland.
Above the crypt: the Mass in E minor
For some years now there has been a resurgence of interest in Bruckner’s non-symphonic output. Ostensibly secondary or preliminary pieces have been newly surveyed, with an emphasis on the continuity of his cultivation of sacred music from first works to last. Long ago rejected is the image of Bruckner as “a poor, deluded man whom the priests of St. Florian have on their conscience” (Brahms) – who had to leave Linz for Vienna in order to find himself.
In 1855, Bishop Franz Josef Rudigier initiated the construction of a new cathedral in Linz. The first stone was laid in 1862, and in 1924, though still not quite finished, Austria’s largest church was consecrated. An important step towards the monumental Neo-Gothic structure’s completion was the consecration of a votive chapel above the crypt, and it was for this solemn occasion that Bruckner composed his Mass in E minor in 1866. Three years would pass before the work received its premiere, for which the composer travelled from the capital – he had moved to Vienna in the meantime. The performance took place in – or, more precisely, in front of – a building site, which may explain the unusual though beguiling scoring with which Bruckner took the challenging setting into account: dispensing with strings, organ and soloists, he wrote exclusively for choral singers and a small wind orchestra without flutes.
The E minor Mass derives its majestic sonorities essentially from the eight-part choir, often singing a cappella; and contemporary sources report that Bruckner favoured very broad tempi at the premiere. The result is lofty, austere, slow-paced and powerfully surging – like a procession joined by more and more people. An indication heading the choral parts reads: “Beginning in moderate strength, later gradually intensifying.” The work’s chromatic, at times astonishingly dissonant harmony is thoroughly modern, distinguishing the composer as a contemporary of Wagner.
The alternation of female and male voices heard right at the beginning of the E minor Mass and running through the entire work is not operatic, but it is wholly theatrical – especially effective in the Credo when the voice parts exclaim the message of the “Et resurrexit”, seconded by the wind instruments’ unrelentingly loud jabbing chords. But the mass setting also knows moments of great inwardness, for example the Agnus Dei’s polyphonically driven closing prayer for peace, growing ever calmer as it vacillates between modes and finally comes to rest in an ethereal E major. Bruckner considered the premiere of the E minor Mass “the most glorious of my life” and proudly noted the honour he was paid: “Bishop and vicars toasted me at the episcopal table.”
In the cloister: the Symphony in A major
Unlike a number of other 19th-century composers, Bruckner concentrated in his large-scale works on a few basic tonalities. Whereas only a single home key is repeated in Beethoven’s symphonies (the Sixth and Eighth are both in F major), in Bruckner’s, three symphonies in C minor are each followed by one in D minor, and the keys of his three great masses – D minor, E minor and F minor – could be imagined as the beginning of an overarching D minor scale. Sharp keys are comparatively rare in Bruckner, so that, along with the Seventh Symphony’s E major, the Sixth’s A major stands out from the rest of his output. But this is an A major with such tonal fluctuation that it can hardly be compared to Beethoven’s use of the same bright key in his Seventh Symphony. Given Bruckner’s obsessive exactitude in musical as well as spiritual matters, it can be assumed that the three sharps predefining the tonality can also be regarded as a religious image.
The Sixth Symphony was a step on Bruckner’s path of steady improvement towards the achievement of a Ninth he felt worthy of dedicating “to the dear Lord”. Next to God in Bruckner’s world view stood the emperor (Franz Joseph I as dedicatee of the Eighth Symphony), below him the king (Ludwig II as dedicatee of the Seventh Symphony), and a further step down, the knight to whom, in the person of Anton von Oelzeit the younger, the Sixth was dedicated. Arguably the most chivalrous deed of this Viennese philosophy professor, who inherited the title of “Knight of Newin”, was improving Bruckner’s living situation by providing him with an apartment near the Schottentor. It was there between 1879 and 1881 that the composer polished his Sixth Symphony, which even now has not fully emerged from the shadow cast by the contrapuntal peak of its predecessor, the Fifth.
There is a paradox. Bruckner has repeatedly been accused of composing schematically, yet the one work is ignored which least complies with his supposedly obligatory formal prototype. According to that putative model, Bruckner’s symphonies always emerge from the “primeval mists”, out of which the first theme solemnly arises. This is not the case with the Sixth, which still begins quietly but with the launching of a dogged ticking rhythm of machine-like precision. The violins persistently repeat a C sharp, ten times per bar, but in three different note values – quavers (eighth notes), quaver triplets and semiquavers (16th notes). The resulting continuum is extended by the high and low strings, unfolding for 46 bars without interruption between ppp and ff: 460 individual sounds arrayed like a string of pearls – an eccentric inspiration for a symphonic work of that time.
Most closely approaching tradition is the Scherzo, the third movement with its zither-like pizzicati and picturesque hunting fanfares in the Trio. The Finale brings the expected A-major apotheosis but otherwise operates like a resumption of the development section of the first movement, taking up its motifs and, especially, its rhythms. With “deliberately long bowing” the strings play the principal theme of the Adagio second movement – which is also indebted to the first. Then an idyllic second theme is followed by a dirgelike hymn. The development culminates in a soundscape marked “Largo”, whose floating, intangible and seemingly directionless qualities are to be found only in Bruckner.
During the composer’s lifetime only the middle movements of the Sixth were performed. In 1899, more than two years after his death, the Vienna Philharmonic played all four movements under the baton of Gustav Mahler, who had, however, cut and re-orchestrated the work. Bruckner’s Sixth was heard uncut for the first time under Karl Pohlig in Stuttgart in 1901. Apparently, this music was better suited to the new century than to the time of its creation.
Marek Janowski is one of the great masters of the music of the German tradition. From 2002 to 2016 he was Artistic Director of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and his Wagner opera cycle with the orchestra in Berlin was held to have set a new standard of performance in concertante opera. Born in Warsaw in 1939, Janowski grew up in Germany and studied violin and piano as well as conducting in Cologne. His artistic path led him from assistant positions in Aachen, Cologne, Düsseldorf and Hamburg to his appointment as General Music Director in Freiburg im Breisgau (1973–75) and Dortmund (1975–79). Between 1984 and 2000, as Musical Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Marek Janowski took the orchestra to a position of pre-eminence in France, as well as abroad. From 1986 to 1990, in addition to his position in Paris, Janowski was Chief Conductor of the Gürzenich-Orchester in Cologne. From 2000 to 2005 Janowski served as Music Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, and from 2001 to 2003 he also held the position of Chief Conductor with the Dresdner Philharmonie. Marek Janowski’s guest conducting took him to all major orchestras in the USA and in Europe as well as to leading opera houses. There is not one world-renowned opera house where he has not been a regular guest since the late 1970s. In 2016 and 2017, Janowski conducted Wagnerʼs Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. Marek Janowski stepped back from the opera scene in the late 1990s to concentrate on the great German symphonic repertoire. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and last conducted the orchestra in September 2017 in works by Hans Pfitzner and Anton Bruckner.
With around 60 concerts annually, the Rundfunkchor Berlin(Berlin Radio Choir) is one of the world’s foremost choruses. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation, stunning responsiveness and richly nuanced sound have made it the chosen partner of international orchestras and conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim and a regular guest at major festivals – including a residency at New York’s White Light Festival in 2016. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards, document its work. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: e.g. the interactive scenic version of Brahms’s German Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001–2015). As of the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as new principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2018 in Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri conducted by Mikko Franck.