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Bruch’s Concerto and Bruckner’s Sixth (Zukerman, Eschenbach, NYPO)

12 January 2013

Bruch: Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor, Op.26
Bruckner: Symphony No.6 in A Major (ed. Nowak)

Pinchas Zukerman (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

Avery Fisher Hall, New York
Thursday, 10 January 2013

Not a great deal unites Bruch and Bruckner in my mind, other than that I always skip over the one recording of Bruch’s concerto in my iTunes in an effort to get to Bruckner, having typed BRUC. If you were feeling cheeky, you could say there was a juxtaposition here between two popular misconceptions: Bruch’s one hit, Bruckner’s ugly duckling. Minor quibbles aside, these were two decent performances.

To be honest, that’s what you would expect from a partnership with the interpretive solidity of Eschenbach and Zukerman. Both artists have safe hands, and have a good deal to say. But here’s not a great deal left to say about the Bruch concerto though, so solidity was the order of the day: this was clear in structure, heartfelt in emotion, and well judged throughout. Zukerman brought just the right amount of drama to his slow opening flourishes, at once poignant, sombre, and confident. Zukerman’s sound – this was the first time I had heard it live – was predictably massive, but also so bright as to verge on sounding sharp. There were no show-pony antics here, just an overall seriousness of purpose, periodically enlivened by vigour from Eschenbach. Yet every phrase subtly showed its relationship to all the others, how violin lines related to orchestral, and how deeply Zukerman inflected this performance with years of understanding. With that base, there could be smiles, as when Zukerman steadily emphasized one note before passing it to the first violins – who aped his phrasing perfectly. Nothing in this performance drew attention to itself, but it was a slow-burning, intense gem.

Bruckner’s Sixth is often viewed as the least successful of his later works, a view I tend to subscribe to. After the Fifth it doesn’t seem quite to resolve itself in so clear a manner, and the clarity of development that one finds in the Seventh and Eighth isn’t yet there. But there is much that is very interesting, particularly harmonically, and in the right hands the Adagio can turn into liquid gold.

This traversal from Christoph Eschenbach hit the right spots at times when I least expected. Even Otto Klemperer and Michael Gielen struggle to make sense of the shift to the first movement’s second theme (themes are difficult to spot in Bruckner, but where the pizzicato bass comes in with violins over the top, it seems appropriate), but Eschenbach made it seem simple. More strikingly, he proved a master of creating not only a characteristically Brucknerian sound world – how glorious this orchestra’s strings can sound in the right hands – but even of creating space around the sound. That’s impressive in Avery Fisher Hall. Bruckner’s fruitier harmonies – foreshadowing what we know of the completed Ninth – came through unabashedly, and dynamics were subtly but tellingly graded.

It was the three movements that often come off worst that came off best. The first movement – marked Majestoso to refer to sovereign power, rather than plain old Maestoso – trod with nobility, and it was rounded off well in the tricky coda. There was vigour to the Scherzo, balanced with languidity in the Trio. (Is it just me, or does not the opening cello motif in the Scherzo rather foreshadow the opening to Mahler 6? After all, Mahler gave the premiere of this symphony’s central movements…) The finale was about as convincing as it could have been: rather than unfolding inevitably, as in his better final movements, Bruckner here gives the impression of willing his material to resolve, and Eschenbach clearly saw no need to alter that impression.

The second and longest movement, however, the central Adagio, fell rather flat. Eschenbach drew deep, dark wells of power from the NYPO’s strings, but it was taken at an uncomfortably slow pace. Most conductors take around 16 minutes, but Eschenbach took 20. This isn’t a problem in itself: what I think is the most appealing rendition on record is Celibidache’s (on EMI), clocking in at 22. But Celi managed somehow to get this music to levitate, to exhale it all in one breath. It was too severe under Eschenbach, too tentative, and at times too milked. Whereas with Celi the pace seems entirely natural, with Eschenbach it was simply too ponderous, lacking in intensity.

Perhaps the New York Minute really is quicker after all.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jon Stubbings permalink
    13 January 2013 3:08 pm

    Can I suggest an addition to your library then: Bruch’s ‘Das Lied von der Glocke’ in this recording by Jac Van Steen and the Staatskapelle Weimar

    It’s a secular oratorio carrying similar Enlightenment sentiments to Beethoven’s 9th (the words here are also by Schiller) – with a sound world akin to Mendelssohn’s big choral works and Brahms’ German Requiem – great stuff if you like that sort of thing (which I do).

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