Symphonic Monumentality comes to Lucca

“Wagner as recollected by an educated peasant” must be a cruel tag indeed to apply to one of the great originals of the symphonic form. Yet there is so much inconsistency between the musician and the man.

The musician creates vast, complex works whose techniques, such as building up a theme from fragments to a whole, an instrumental deployment recalling his own organ technique, and an almost minimalist use of repetition, foreshadow many of the following century’s pet love-affairs with organic transformations and motivic developments.

The man is constantly tugging his forelock in deep humility and, after a performance of one of his symphonies, even gives a tip to the conductor, renowned Hans Richter, who recalls: “he came to me, his face beaming with enthusiasm and joy. I felt him press a coin into my hand. ‘Take this’ he said, ‘and have a drink on me.’ I, of course, accepted the coin, and wore it on my watch-chain ever after”.

How could one possibly reconcile the stupendous majesty of this composer’s symphonic climaxes with the almost boorish clod-hoppingness of his character?

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The point is that Bruckner suffered from a profound inferiority complex, so profound that it contributed to his doubting whether his symphonies were any good and his accepting hints from fellow musicians to revise them, some of them at least five times over.

Fortunately, at least in respect of several of his other symphonies, number eight comes to us in just three versions:  the original one of 1887, the revised version of 1890 and the published score of 1892. The former is considered to be a substantial improvement on the first and was completed at the suggestion of the conductor Herman Levi who “found it impossible to conduct the symphony in its present form.” It would be pedantic to go into the revisions here; suffice it to say that the six cymbal clashes in the third movement were reduced to two, which I think are plenty enough!

The version we heard yesterday evening in the beautiful church of Santa Maria dei Servi within Lucca’s walled city, (the same church where we heard the Wagner concert mentioned in my post at was neither the original nor the revised one. It was Robert Haas’s account which combines the first two versions and adds a few bits from Haas’s own mind to weave together some awkward transitional passages.

This was the first performance ever in Italy of Haas’s edition of Bruckner’s eighth. I don’t know if there have been performances of the other versions of the same symphony in Italy. I hazard a guess that it is definitely the first performance of this monumental work in Lucca, however!

Haas’s editions of the Brucknerian symphonic canon have come under severe criticism. For example, musicologist Benjamin Korstvedt accuses Haas of making changes to Bruckner’s musical texts that “went beyond the limits of scholarly responsibility”.

The fact that Haas was a fully-paid up member of the Nazi party did not help either!

(It was also Bruckner’s music, the adagio from his seventh symphony that was considered appropriate background to accompany the announcement of Herr Hitler’s death on Deutscher Reichsrundfunk on the 1st of May 1945. Not Wagner, note…)

To come to the actual performance: it was a miracle of organization and coherence. With around a hundred orchestral players, including three harps, a magnificent brass section, four French horns doubling on Wagner tubas (the only part which at one point showed some dodgy ensemble playing, but no matter, they were still good), a earthquake-rumbling section of double-basses, an exquisite and often searingly poignant string ensemble, very good wind and an absolutely terrific percussion section, with the kettledrummer and the triangulist to be singled out for their sterling efforts, and all this army under the emotional, but always controlled hand, of conductor, organizer and musical entrepreneur par excellence, Andrea Colombini….. I can only gasp in awe at this outstanding effort to educate and enlarge the musically often limited horizons of Lucca’s citizens.

And that was part of the problem: Colombini and his orchestra had fully grasped the difficulties of interpreting Bruckner’s often enigmatic symphonic style but much of the audience was unprepared for what they were about to hear.  Yet, to paraphrase what someone famously said about poetry: “good music can communicate before it is understood”. The standing ovation at the end of a performance, which lasted nigh on two hours, was an indication that Colombini’s efforts had achieved a major success and had truly communicated the force of Bruckner’s eighth to an unprepared public.

And all this wonder again was for free, with voluntary contributions to the charitable foundations of the bishop of Lucca to help the poor and needy in ever-increasingly austerity-constricted Italy. A wonder indeed!

Bruckner was motivated by Wagner and, in his turn, Mahler was inspired by Bruckner. This provincial ex-choir boy from a village near Linz stands in the great river of German romanticism and post-romanticism leading to all the most momentous metamorphisms of music in our time. It was a privilege and a joy to hear the greatest of Bruckner’s symphonies in the beautiful city of Lucca.

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And if you missed it this time there will be a repeat performance on 16th November at 21.15!


One thought on “Symphonic Monumentality comes to Lucca

  1. Pingback: Hogmanay – Lucca style | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and beyond)

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