Thursday, May 18, 2023

Memorable Bruckner from Philippe Jordan and the LAPO

Philippe Jordan and the LA Philharmonic after the conclusion of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony.


Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles Music Center

Without the attraction of Dudamel on the podium or a big-name soloist, Disney Hall was less than full on the first Sunday in May, but for those who did make the effort, the rewards were rich indeed, including the Violin Concerto of Antonin Dvořák as a first half item more substantial than usual when the concert’s main work is one of the longer Bruckner symphonies, in this case the Seventh.

Antonin Dvořák in 1882.
Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 (B. 96 / B. 108) seems still to have the “neglected” tag around its neck compared with the violin concertos by other inarguable greats of the 19th century, but surprisingly, this was already the fourth occasion in the last half-dozen years when it has come up for review on LA Opus, most recently in a magnetically personal interaction between Gil Shaham, the LA Chamber Orchestra, and its Music Director Jaime Martín (reviewed here).

The present performance though, in which the LAPO’s Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour took the solo role, collaborating with his colleagues under the baton of the Swiss guest conductor Philippe Jordan, brought to mind rather a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor in the opening concert of the Long Beach Symphony’s 2022-23 season (review), by that orchestra’s Concertmaster, Roger Wilkie.

Martin Chalifour.
As then, here was the same unshowy but seemingly effortless and chamber music-like exactness of interplay between soloist and orchestra, born of a long familiarity with each other—particularly necessary in the Dvořák concerto’s indelibly memorable rondo finale—and more than making up for the absence of visiting celebrity wattage. Throughout, clarity was aided by the division of 1st and 2nd violins left and right, a layout that also benefited the Bruckner to come. 

M. Jordan was an admirable mediator in the concerto performance, launching Dvořák’s opening orchestral tutti at just the right Allegro ma non troppo middle course between the raised-fist assertiveness of some performances and over-portentous throat-clearing of others, and at the required forte dynamic rather than ff. At the other end of the movement, the sensitivity and unanimity of these performers made it even more difficult than usual to be sure of the precise moment when Dvořák eases pianissimo into the Adagio (and yes, again taken ma non troppo as per the score), after his innovatory curtailing of the recapitulation.

This fine performance, however, was just the starter that preceded the richly nourishing main course of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major WAB 107. After Dvořák’s modest orchestral forces' relatively sparse appearance on the big Disney Hall platform, it filled up a good deal, with an extra desk or two of each string section (based around 10 double basses!), and the addition to Bruckner’s usual mid-career brass section of his required pairs of tenor and bass “Wagner tubas” for the Adagio and finale —but with no specious beefing-up of the composer’s still-Classical double woodwinds.

Anton Bruckner in 1885—portrait
by Hermann von Kaulbach.
There’s an extraordinarily wide range of duration in recordings of this symphony, from well under an hour in some from the 1950s to the extraordinary 88 minutes of Sergiu Celibidache (and I recall from around a quarter-century ago in London a marmoreal but convincing-on-the-day 82-minute traversal by the gifted Welsh conductor Wyn Morris with the now-defunct New Queens Hall Orchestra on period instruments). And all this without any optional exposition repeats nor, thank goodness, the complication of different versions of the score, as is the case with some of Bruckner’s other symphonies.

At around 62 minutes, M. Jordan’s performance was toward the lower end of this range, but such was his mastery of tempo relationships that nowhere did it seem unduly rushed. The old canard that Bruckner “wrote the same symphony nine times” (and in any case he penned 11) was never more demonstrably untrue than in the case of the Seventh; the relative proportions and expressive weight of its four movements are unique amongst his symphonies, as is the very opening, which immediately makes for interpretative challenges.

What a temptation it must be—when confronted with arguably the most gloriously expansive and soaring opening melody in the entire symphonic repertoire, initially on massed cellos with a single horn (more prominent than usual in this performance) in its opening measures—to make the absolute most of it? But then if you do, how do you avoid a sense of anti-climax when you descend into the faster second theme, and positive bathos when the jaunty third theme arrives?

Philippe Jordan.
As M. Jordan demonstrated, you trust and observe the score, take that opening at Bruckner’s marked Allegro moderato, and then mold and shape what follows—working with one of the world’s greatest orchestras—into a gloriously inevitable progress. And then at the other end of the movement, when what inevitably feels like a glowing sunrise emerges from the coda’s initial sepulchral gloom, you observe Bruckner’s nach und nach etwas schneller (little by little growing faster) so that it’s the triumphant conclusion to the first stage in a symphonic journey, rather than sounding like a Götterdämerung-ish end to all things.

This command of pace and transition continued into the second movement Adagio, one of Bruckner’s greatest, aided by tight ensemble and immaculately balanced playing from the LAPO; a particular pleasure was the security of pitch by the quartet of Wagner tubas in their passages of very close harmony during the funereal coda. So what about that once-controversial, once-only cymbal crash/triangle/timpani roll climax to the movement? It was there, with M. Jordan discreetly reining in the dynamics through the long climb to the summit so that the fff moment struck with maximum possible force (click here for a hilarious YouTube take on this).

The Adagio’s climax, with percussion, in Bruckner’s manuscript score. Its condition, with additions by other hands, makes it impossible to be certain whether he intended to include cymbals and triangle from the outset.

The other major hurdle for interpreters of this symphony is to avoid the sense of anti-climax that can arise all too easily from Bruckner’s following two very expansive, serious movements (totaling 41 minutes in this performance) with two much shorter, lighter ones. A solution suggested by at least one commentator is to treat the work as notionally in three, not four parts, so that the scherzo and finale, with only a very short pause between them, come to feel more like complementary halves of a single larger entity.

Deliberately or not, this was the effect of M. Jordan’s interpretation, and it worked a treat. The scherzo was appropriately Sehr schnell (very fast), with the trio only a little slower, etwas langsammer, as marked. After the scherzo da capo, he made just a brief pause, and then the finale leapt from the starting-gate and remained airborne to its end, with very little slowing during the concluding thematic pile-up so that the final sforzando chord was delivered with the crispest-possible finality, rather than the “Was that it then?” sense that this admittedly problematic conclusion often engenders.

All-in-all, this account of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, if not the last word in epic grandeur, was one of the most cohesive, satisfying, and invigorating performances of the work that I have heard in nearly 60 years of concert-going—indeed a “spiritual experience” as one fellow audience-member remarked. I do hope that the LAPO invites Philippe Jordan back, a Brucknerian born if ever there was one!


Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles Music Center, Sunday, May 7 2023, 2:00 p.m.
Images: The performance: author; Martin Chalifour and Phillipe Jordan: LA Philharmonic; Dvořák and Bruckner: Wikimedia Commons; Bruckner score: IMSLP.

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