Saturday, February 27, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I wasn't feeling too chipper about lugging myself up to the City last night, but I just had to go. Herbert Blomstedt was conducting a Bruckner symphony, and I never miss one of those occasions.

This time the symphony was the Third. Of all the intractable textual tangles in Bruckner symphonies, the Third's is the worst. It exists in no fewer than five versions, compiled over some 18 years, the result of Bruckner's, and his helpfully interfering pupils', attempts to fix an imperfect work. General opinion is that they just succeeded at making it worse every time they touched it.

The standard text has long been the second version, of 1877, but a few decades ago the first version, of 1873, became generally available, and it instantly won the conversion of Robert Simpson, the leading English-language Bruckner scholar, who'd previously assumed it was just a sketchy draft. Simpson's endorsement of the 1873 as the best, most fully realized version of the Third is what convinced Blomstedt to give it a try.

I'd long held a tentative conclusion about this based on recordings, and now that I've heard it live I'm sure of it: Simpson was wrong. It isn't that the 1873 is sketchy, but that - unlike Bruckner's earlier symphonies, which stand on their own terms - this one is full of devices that he'd use brilliantly in his mature work from the Fourth on, but which here are not quite fully baked and which he doesn't yet know how to put together. Bruckner's mature work is built in large structural blocks, and here the blocks aren't attached properly.

It's also extremely long. Vast expansiveness is an essential quality in Bruckner, but in the case of the Third I think that the slight concision of the revised versions, plus their benefit of hindsight, give them the edge. There was nothing wrong with the performance last night: it's the work.

Beginning the program, Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. Soloist Maria João Pires performed the first two movements with such compellingly gentle beauty as to make the orchestra sound unjustly crass and awkward by simple proximity. She brought the same soft plushness to the perky and lively finale, playing it with a Mozartean gentility unlike anything I've ever heard in this work. The gentle buzz she gave to a passage where Beethoven wants you to pound the bottom end of the keyboard a few times was unbelievable.

Enormous ovation. No encore. Time was pressing: we had a giant symphony to get through.

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