|The Boston Philharmonic in a previous performance at Jordan Hall.|
Nazis seemed to be haunting the Hub Review last weekend - after sitting through Good at BU, I then caught Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony at Jordan Hall, with Benjamin Zander's Boston Philharmonic. Not that Bruckner was a Nazi, of course (he died in 1896); but the great symphonist now lives in their long shadow - he was, in fact, probably the favorite composer of Adolph Hitler. Yeah, ole Uncle Adolph had an even bigger jones for Bruckner than Wagner; indeed, when German radio stations heard of Hitler's suicide, they spontaneously played the Adagio from Bruckner's Seventh Symphony in mourning. (Yes - mourning.) So while Wagner may have composed Siegfried's funeral music, Bruckner actually composed Hitler's funeral music.
Der Führer's admiration for the composer may have been sourced in something like identification; it would have been easy for Hitler to imagine Bruckner as his musical twin. Both were Austrians, both were slightly batty Catholics with a disturbing reverence for "purity," and both were determined to create enormous empires - in Bruckner's case, of course, merely of sound. It's important to remember that, and to remember that there's not a trace of anti-Semitism to be found in Bruckner - just a weird sense of Bavarian pastorale gone slightly mad, with attendant pretensions to death, transcendence, damnation, resurrection - the whole neurotically overblown late-nineteenth-century kit and caboodle. But to be honest, what makes Bruckner always sound bonkers to me is a yin-yangish tension in his music between vast, elaborate architectures and a kind of naïve, even crude, simplicity. It's as if while stylistically his whole symphonic end-game was growing ever more florid, his childish obsessions were at the same time banging through its highly-wrought surface.
Don't get me wrong - I like Bruckner (at left, in a portrait that captures something of that introverted childishness); but I like him with his inner crazy intact; in a word, I don't think Hitler was wrong about him (even if, unlike Wagner, he was probably harmless). But I didn't feel much that was really crazy going on in Benjamin Zander's highly accomplished version of the Eighth Symphony last weekend. The performance got a gushing review in the Globe, and for at least one good reason - the orchestra (particularly the horn section, which had quite the Wagnerian workout) sounded more coherent and polished than they have in the recent past. Indeed, rarely have I heard the Boston Philharmonic sound better - although, as always, they were playing a piece that requires huge forces in a space too small for them (Jordan Hall), which inevitably resulted in some balance and volume problems. Still, this was a detailed and persuasive rendition of a ginormous challenge.
And you can't deny that Zander (at right, in a typical pose) knows how to calibrate grand gestures - indeed, he all but lives for grand gestures, and their attendant sense of uplift. But while he's essentially after grandiloquence, he doesn't want it to look vulgar - and so he shaped the Eighth superbly (if a bit sedately - it ran well over its usual 80 minutes), attending with almost too much solicitude to the usual programmatic pitstops - childhood joy, innocence lost, suffering, death, and sudden transcendence (with, of course, a shift from minor to major at the very last minute, like an unexpected goal at the World Cup).
Most of the critics seem to have been thrilled that Zander kept Bruckner under such elevated control - that the famous drive of the finale was here so methodical, that the symphony unfolded, as the Globe approvingly put it, like an algorithm. But I couldn't help feeling that in Zander's "best-of-what's-been-thought-and-said" version something that Bruckner said had been left out - this was the Eighth as rhetoric rather than rapture. In other words, there are more things in this composer's musical heaven and earth than "uplift," and maybe vulgarity ain't always a bad thing.