Discs: When it's all a matter of faith: Robert Cowan and Stephen Johnson on fervent Bruckner and zealous Schubert
Saturday 02 October 1993
ANTON Bruckner is the perfect musical evangelist. Although rooted in a specific liturgy, his music sidesteps ceremony, ritual or dogma and taps a common spiritual nerve. It is a Romantic world, yet its power is both inspiring and edifying - a sort of sanctified Wagner, replete with sky-bound cadences and thundering crescendos.
Both these glorious works recall the Seventh Symphony; Beethoven's Missa Solemnis - a rarer reference still - is suggested in the 'Agnus Dei' by simultaneously descending strings and ascending bassoons. Matthew Best's Corydon performances combine spiritual intensity with great physical impact.
Already dyed-in-the-wool Brucknerians will need no prompting to investigate, but those of you normally averse to symphonic epics may be more hesitant. In which case, the relative brevity of Bruckner's religious movements should provide the perfect access point to a magnificent corpus of music. RC
THERE is absolutely nothing forced about these performances. For all the splendour, the rock-like choral unisons in the Te Deum are essentially calm. Best's idea of taking the piece in one basic pulse has resulted only in freshness and a truly Brucknerian sense of flow.
While the Te Deum seems on its way to being a staple part of the modern choral repertoire, the D minor Mass remains a complete outsider. This disc may change that. The music is delightful - naive in the best sense, but with its own kind of highly personal sophistication. The basic terms of reference are still in the choral works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, with Wagner occasionally joining the company - which he does with surprisingly good grace. But there are glorious things. Best understands the processes well, but there's a balancing affection for the music which ensures a warm afterglow - well registered by the beautifully clear, atmospheric recordings. SJ
Royal Concertgebouw Orch /
(Teldec 4509-911874-2: 4 CDs)
ALTHOUGH based on careful scrutiny of Schubert's original manuscript scores, Harnoncourt's Schubert has a curious tendency to sound rather like Harnoncourt's Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Bach and Johann Strauss. And there's no mistaking the highly attenuated phrasing, the tapered dynamics, extreme tempi, clean but harsh textures and a reluctance to have string players employ expressive vibrato.
But when it comes to choosing among the textual options, Harnoncourt's fundamentalist zeal is awe- inspiring. 'We are convinced that these 'corrections' were justified in their day,' he writes, referring to amendments made after Schubert's death; 'but nowadays we can - and must - play Schubert's symphonies as they were written.' Must? Well, there we 'must' take the evidence on trust. As it happens, the set abounds in fascinating surprises. No 2 has a balletic urgency that I found entirely winning; No 6's closing Allegro moderato is unusually slow but prone to unexpected bouts of excitement; the 'Unfinished' is lean and highly inflected, and the 'Great' C major, clear, lightweight but rather lacking in momentum.
There, I switched to another new recording, one in which there is ample flexibility along with equally vivid characterisation and a more searching realisation of the music's darker intimations. It's a period instrument performance conducted by Frans Bruggen (Philips), but rest assured, its authenticity is more than skin deep. RC
BLESSINGS don't come much more mixed. Some of Harnoncourt's re-readings are little less than revitalisations, others are just perverse. The Scherzo of the Sixth Symphony is transformed into a vibrant, Apollonian Springtanz; after it comes a finale which for a while treads as listlessly as anything in Winterreise, and then breaks out in a series of bizarre, jolting gear-changes.
Harnoncourt's Schubert doesn't smile a great deal. It is leaner, darker, its energies sharply focused, the sparing use of vibrato very much part of the expressive ethos, not just a feature of style. Sometimes it stirs deeply - the first movement of the 'Unfinished' is very black indeed, while the finale of the Third startlingly pre-echoes the planetary dance of the Great C major.
Elsewhere in this set, the Harnoncourt view can seem awfully one-sided: does one want to hear intimations of sadder, harsher things in the Fifth Symphony or just enjoy it for the idyllic thing it once seemed to be? SJ
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