RECORDS / Double Play: Building cathedrals in the air: Robert Cowan and Stephen Johnson compare notes on new releases of Bruckner, Barber and Ives

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Bruckner: Symphony No 5 - Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Daniel Barenboim (Teldec 9031-73271-2)

IF EVER I had doubts about the Fifth Symphony as musical architecture, then this recording would be the ideal faith-restorer. Barenboim's pacing, his sense of where the music is headed even in Bruckner's great pauses and parentheses, underlines the work's imposing logic. Questioning Bruckner's proportions feels about as plausible as suggesting improvements to the interior of Chartres Cathedral.

The problems begin when you start to probe beyond the structure - there doesn't seem to be a great deal else to engage with. At first the grand, sombre, impersonal tone is enough, especially in the shadowy spaces of the slow introduction - 'slow' is very much the word, but the tread doesn't falter. But when it comes to atmosphere, melodic aspiration, or that childlike pathos that contrasts so tellingly with the dark grandeur of the slow movement's climaxes - on these levels, the performance never really comes to life.

Even more devastating is the humourlessness of it all - humour in Bruckner? Absolutely: his term for the work was 'cheeky', and listening to Gunter Wand (BMG/RCA) in the finale's introduction (the strings' solemnity gently mocked by the clarinet), I begin to understand. Put that vital performance, or perhaps the atmospheric Karajan version, beside Barenboim's, and you will see how much is lost when structure and plush sound become all-important. There are human beings, too, in Bruckner's cathedral - awestruck, elated, amused, meditative, but never absent. SJ

THIS is surely Bruckner's Eroica, and Barenboim is its bravest modern exponent. Where Karajan is the mighty high priest expounding a sacred text, and Eugen Jochum the fervent fundamentalist given to extremes of exultation and humility, Barenboim is both Freud and Nietzsche, tearing at the outer trappings of Bruckner's faith in pursuit of a barely repressed will to power. Not that his reading lacks spirituality: the layered, flute-topped string lines that descend roughly half-way through the first movement, the ecstatic blending of textures in the second, and the noble pacing of the massive brass chorales in the fourth, all testify to an acute awareness of the music's innate mysticism. But Barenboim is never hidebound by pious appearances. He snatches at the first movement's wispy cello melody and hurries it into the main argument, driving each climax forwards with inexorable enthusiasm. The Adagio is gloriously candid, its climaxes seen as peaks in a huge arch rather than mountains on a distant horizon; the scherzo is insistently defiant and in the 'references back' that open the Finale, Barenboim again displays uncommon eagerness. The two-tier double fugue stamps, grumbles and twitches; the preparatory pages for the conclusive merging of themes are hugely excitable, but the orchestra's innate refinement ensures executant excellence.

Would Karajan be turning in his grave? I think that he probably would. This outspoken Bruckner is so utterly at odds with his: prayer without ritual; affirmation, but to no specific deity. Just occasionally, Barenboim falls prey to the rushing tide and fails to recover his breath. But rather that than the 'holy sepulchre' approach we so often suffer at the hands of others. RC

Ives: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2, etc; Barber: String Quartet No 1 - Emerson String Quartet (DG 435 864-2)

HEARING a familiar piece in its original, unfamiliar context usually necessitates a rethink. I can't help thinking, though, that Barber was right to take the slow movement out of his String Quartet Op 11 and offer it to the world again as the Adagio for Strings. The rest of the Quartet is likeable; at one point it even manages to sound like Elgar - good Elgar. But the Adagio remains the Adagio, a very beautiful and entirely self-sufficient short piece. And, I confess, I missed the sound of the massed strings, despite the confident, shapely playing of the Emerson Quartet.

But it's the Ives works - the two string quartets and the aptly- subtitled Holding Your Own scherzo - that dominate this disc, and here the success is unqualified. The climax of the Second Quartet's finale, 'The Call of the Mountains', can sound like an underpowered pre-echo of the Fourth Symphony's apotheosis, but in the hands of the Emerson Quartet, that striving after the impossible is thrilling, and the recording has caught it very effectively. Turn from that to the first movement of No 1 - a slow fugal fantasy on American hymn tunes - and you get another kind of Ivesian vision, nave, quirky, but oddly touching at the same time, and the Emersons warm to it. I think I prefer it this way than in its later incarnation as the Fourth Symphony's penultimate panel - the reverse of the Barber problem? SJ

THE PAINFULLY intense Adagio that forms the second section of Samuel Barber's First Quartet finds a surreal parallel in the angrily fragmented Andante-Adagio sequence at the close of Charles Ives's Second: both build from humble beginnings; both utterly dominate their respective quartets, and although only the Barber has achieved life outside its proper context, both could easily lead separate lives. Experiencing the Barber Quartet in its entirety is rather like suddenly finding out about a loved one's family. The Adagio has for so long been familiar on its own (especially via the sound-tracks of Platoon and The Elephant Man) that one forgets its original place at the centre of a fairly organised structure. The first movement is a restless synthesis of Bartok and Nielsen, the third, a mirror-image of the first; but it's a powerful quartet and one appreciates the Adagio all the more for having heard it 'in situ', so to speak. Ives's First Quartet (1896) picks up where Dvorak's American (1893) left off, just as his Second Symphony constituted a sort of brave New World. However, where Dvorak imitated North American Indian melodies, Ives paraphrased and combined American hymn tunes; in fact, the last three movements of his Quartet were apparently composed for a church service. It's a delightful and tuneful work, whereas the Second Quartet is modernistic almost to the point of cynicism. But when 'The Call of the Mountains' finale echoes in the wake of the scherzo's carping retreat, the mood changes from abstruse playfulness to a troubled calm. There's an encore, too, a very odd 1'36' scherzo, Holding Your Own - a pungent aphorism, full of converging quotations. This, like everything else on the disc, is performed with consummate virtuosity and obvious dedication, attributes well reported in the lightweight but generally clear recording. RC

Comments