The work that makes the greatest case for the music of Anton Bruckner is the composer’s Ninth Symphony, unfinished at the time of his death with three complete movements completed. Under the direction of German-born maestro Christoph Eschenbach, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Unfinished was an illuminating study of the amazing depth contained in the work. Though the symphony is incomplete, each movement seems to contain miniature movements within them that alter the nature of the piece as it goes along. The work features frequent tempo changes, melody changes, and violent swings of pitch, but it is a startlingly well-composed piece that never seems excessive but rather a summation (albeit an imcomplete one) of a great career and the wisdom acquired by the composer over that career.
The orchestra’s mighty brass had to enlist extra help beyond their usual forces, using a staggering nine horns, with the CSO’s usual four players switching to the seldom-used Wagner tuba in the final adagio movement. Eschenbach was not afraid to drive the brass or the woodwinds to full blast, then leaving them to go silent and pulling the curtain back to reveal the strings, whose taut yet lyrical playing helped to make an exquisite contrast between the more furious playing of the horns.
Compared to other performances of the symphony, Eschenbach paced the work slowly, but at no point did the tempos seem over-indulgent, nor did the playing seem excessively mannered. It was not a “middle-of-the-road” performance, but one which was, in some ways, extreme. Given Bruckner’s style (and the CSO’s strengths), it seemed as if this style of performance accommodated his work quite well, though others may object.
The concert began with two shorter pieces, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which featured the strings in a particularly authoritative mode in a grandiose interpretation of the master’s work, and, perhaps more importantly, the CSO’s very first performance of the British-born, Chicago-based composer Bernard Rands, in the audience to hear his work …where the murmurs die…, a soft, meditative piece, which to my ear seemed particularly inspired by the music of Debussy, that served as a quiet counterpoint to the more power-driven and involved works that appeared on either side of it.
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