Yesterday afternoon San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt returned to Davies Symphony Hall to begin two weeks of subscription concerts. Due to the length of the symphony, the overture was omitted from the usual overture-concerto-symphony program plan. The second half of the concert was devoted entirely to Anton Bruckner’s WAB 103 (third) symphony in D minor, while the first half consisted only of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1803 Opus 37 (third) piano concerto in C minor. The soloist was the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires.
Since the symphony was dedicated to Richard Wagner, the program amounted to a trajectory from Beethoven through Wagner to Bruckner without stopping off at Wagner as a way station. Yet the attentive listener could detect reverberations of Beethoven in WAB 103, even without the presence of Wagner as a “refracting lens.” This was due, in part, to both compositions each being in a minor key with historical connotations of dramatism. Indeed, Opus 37 was Beethoven’s only minor-key concerto; and 1803 is also the year in which Beethoven completed his Opus 47 (“Kreutzer”) violin sonata, whose A major introduction shifts into A minor for the main body of the opening movement.
Opus 37 shares with Opus 47 the intensity of its minor-key rhetoric. However, the concerto reinforces that rhetoric with just as much intensity in the relationship between the piano and the ensemble instruments. Beethoven unfolds a rich palette of orchestral sonorities to contrast the soloist, whether the music is boldly assertive or gently coaxing. Blomstedt clearly appreciated the breadth of that diversity, and Pires just as clearly shared his vision of the dramatism that Beethoven intended to convey. She also played with a meticulous control of every note, not only for the sake of fidelity to the score but also to establish how two or more separate voices could be actively in play within the fabric of the counterpoint she had to execute.
There is a tendency to criticize this concerto for being too bombastic. To continue the dramatic metaphor, some feel that Beethoven used his minor-key rhetoric to chew the scenery. Neither Blomstedt nor Pires subscribed to this point of view. The attentive listener was thus rewarded with a more refined approach to dramatism in which intensity was frequently achieved by an execution as skillful at managing soft dynamics as it was in delivering the louder passages with controlled outbursts.
Intensity was also the prevailing rhetorical stance in WAB 103. However, the sense of “how time passes” (to borrow a phrase from Karlheinz Stockhausen) for Bruckner makes for a radical departure of how one encounters time-consciousness in Beethoven, Wagner, Gustav Mahler, or, for than matter, Robert Wilson. Those who expect Bruckner to be “symphonic Wagner” are sure to be disappointed. Adjusting to “Bruckner time” takes a bit of acclimation. Fortunately, Blomstedt is one of the best conductors around to facilitate that acclimation.
Begin with why Wagner approved of Bruckner’s dedication. Whether or not he took the trouble to listen to a performance, Wagner would have easily seen in the score how Bruckner shared his interest in motivic building blocks. He would also have recognized that Bruckner was applying the technique for more abstract symphonic purposes rather than for the narrative requirements of opera. Thus, Wagner probably saw in this symphony a major sea change in the very nature in what a symphony could be and what it could do. For many that change is difficult to appreciate, particularly by those who try to compare Bruckner’s symphonies with Mahler’s.
Fortunately, Blomstedt seems to have just the right mindset for working with an ensemble to allow Bruckner’s unique sense of time to unfold at its own pace and to do so in a thoroughly compelling manner. He achieved this goal when he recorded all nine symphonies with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and he has consistently achieved it when he performs Bruckner symphonies with SFS. His technique seems to derive primarily from a desire to find just the right levels of dynamic contrasts to articulate the underlying motivic language. Thus, while there are any number of passages in the score in which one would think that Bruckner is repeating himself, Blomstedt knows how to shape those passages to avoid any sense that Bruckner is being too repetitive (hence the distinction from Wilson as well as the aforementioned composers).
Mind you, the journey through WAB 103 is still a lengthy one. The program book had it clocking in at 65 minutes. However, Blomstedt’s approach to that duration never left the attentive listener checking his/her watch. One might say that Blomstedt knew how to capture the length of the “Bruckner experience” without ever letting it devolve into longueur.
The result was a journey along which there turned out to be an stimulating variety of impressive sights. These were not just the motifs through which Wagner’s language could be directed to a new set of utterances. By virtue of listening to Beethoven during the first half of the program, one could also detect when Bruckner was looking “through” Wagner all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, recalling, every now and then, some of those tropes through which Beethoven forged a new musical language for the nineteenth century. In other words Blomstedt had fashioned a program through which the Beethoven during the first half of the program returned, albeit as faint echoes, during the second.
Yesterday afternoon thus delivered one of the most satisfying concerts to come to Davies thus far in the 2015–16 SFS season.