When I walked into Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, there was some commotion in the hallway. Fans were having their picture taken with Lang Lang (the Chinese piano star). I love seeing this—the fans, yes, but also musicians in attendance at concerts not their own. A virtuoso pianist, arrived to hear the Bruckner Eighth? There is something almost heartening about that to me.
In the hall, some low brass were warming up, playing bits of the symphony. That was a real appetite-whetter.
We were about to hear the third of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts. The VPO had played on Friday and Saturday nights. And this Sunday-afternoon concert featured just the one work: the Symphony No. 8 of Anton Bruckner.
Before the lights dimmed, I met a critic who told me that this was his fourth Bruckner Eighth in Carnegie Hall—played by this very orchestra, the VPO. The first had been in 1989, when Herbert von Karajan, the conductor, was on his last legs. On his last legs, but still great on this day, said my critic friend.
Thanks to the miracle of Carnegie Hall’s online database, I have learned about the other conductors: Georg Solti (1993) and Bernard Haitink (2002). (I believe I was present for the Haitink Eighth.) And on this afternoon, we would hear Christian Thielemann.
Before beginning, he got absolute silence in the hall. The first note was flubbed, unfortunately. That is, the onset was fudged. But there was not much wrong thereafter. Sure, there were mistakes, as this was not a studio recording, thank heaven. The music—the soul of the music—was the main point. But the VPO players are sure-footed, musically and technically.
Whenever I hear the Vienna Phil. and the Berlin Phil., I wonder, a little crabbily, why other horn sections can’t be as secure.
To conduct a Bruckner symphony, you have to know the architecture, get the pacing. Thielemann has the architecture and the pacing in his bones. You can’t build a cathedral in sound all at once. (That is a well-known description of Bruckner symphonies: “cathedrals in sound.”) It takes patience. The conductor must be a wise builder, as Bruckner was.
Can Bruckner symphonies survive in an era of narrow attention spans? Our TikTok age? I think these symphonies are so great, they can survive anything.
I mentioned sound—cathedrals in sound. Sound is not everything, in an orchestra. You need nimbleness, character, etc. But sound is not nothing either—and the Vienna Philharmonic has it in abundance. Combine it with the acoustics of Carnegie Hall, and you have something extraordinary. This did the Bruckner Eighth no harm.
Nicht schleppend! That is an important direction in Bruckner, and in Mahler. Don’t drag, for heaven’s sake! Thielemann obeyed this direction. Also, he did not rush. The symphony unfolded naturally. It had its internal logic.
At the end of the first movement, a figure is repeated over and over. (I must say at this point that Thielemann and the VPO used the edition of Robert Haas. Editions in Bruckner make a difference.) There is a three-note figure, downward, in the strings. You can play this figure the same, each time. Nothing wrong with that. But Thielemann and the VPO played it differently, each time—slightly differently. Very subtle. And this was highly effective.
Obviously, Thielemann knew this symphony. (By the way, he conducted all three concerts, including encores, without a score.) But it was also obvious that the players knew it. Familiarity—long experience—is an advantage.
The second movement of the Eighth is its scherzo. On Sunday afternoon, it had a little motor—a little motor that propelled it. Was the music on auto-pilot? No. A conductor’s head and heart are important. A machine cannot play this music. Nevertheless, that little motor must run.
In the third movement, the Adagio, the opening theme must be set up—set up by a little motor that introduces the theme. This was done beautifully. The Adagio is full of quiet heaving, if you will allow such a phrase. (And there is louder fare too, of course.) The quiet heaving from Thielemann and the VPO was enveloping and moving.
Rests are important in Bruckner. Rests are meaningful, not arbitrary. This is certainly true in the Eighth’s Adagio. And the VPO’s rests were duly meaningful. During one of them, a cellphone went off—but it could have been worse: the patron’s phone was not on full volume.
(Can you imagine Karajan’s reaction, if he had lived in the age of the cellphone? Can you imagine Toscanini’s? The police would have to be called in—for Toscanini.)
In the fourth movement, the finale, there was some looseness in the Vienna Philharmonic. And the logic of the symphony strayed somewhat. This was the least compelling of the four movements—but it was compelling enough, and the Bruckner Eighth had done its work. Its glorious, overwhelming, uplifting work.
As a rule, I do not think there should be an encore after this symphony. What more is there to say? By tradition, there is no encore after Beethoven’s last piano sonata. About ten days ago, Mitsuko Uchida played the last three Beethoven sonatas in Carnegie Hall. She kept the tradition: no encore, no matter how long the audience applauded.
But the Vienna Phil. has a tradition, too—a Viennese favorite after a Carnegie Hall program (or any other on tour, I imagine). On Sunday afternoon, after the Bruckner Eighth, Christian Thielemann and the VPO offered some Josef Strauss: Music of the Spheres. They treated this music with tender loving care. They gave it as much care as they had given the Bruckner.
That is musicianship.