I’ve been listening to Bruckner’s 6th Symphony, a recent ATMA Classique release by the Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Not so long ago YN-M was a youngster seeking to make a name for himself, a relative unknown. And Now?
Well of course he’s still young, But the very sophisticated crowd at Parterre.com selected YN-S their Maestro of the Year.
Today’s post on Norman Lebrecht’s blog gives a good indication of how far he’s come, conducting three far-flung orchestras, namely Rotterdam Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra in addition to his Orchestre Métropolitain in Montréal.
What’s surely not lost on the management at these orchestras is that as their conductor’s star rises, so goes the orchestra. At one time the orchestra of note in this country was L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, known for a series of wonderful recordings with their then music-director Charles Dutoit. They weren’t important because they were Canadian, they were simply important, period. I can’t help wondering whether someone behind the scenes –if not YN-S himself—is aware of the competition.
That’s the context in which I’ve been listening to their Bruckner 6. This is not a work designed to exploit the conductor’s fame; quite the contrary. It’s nerdy programming that makes the case for the conductor as a hard-nose interpreter, an obscure work you never hear in the concert hall. It’s somewhat thankless, considering how difficult it is to pull off. Who picks this kind of rep unless they have something to say? It’s not a choice that’s likely to leap off the shelves, because Bruckner simply doesn’t have that kind of fan-base (although maybe YN-S does…?). First and foremost, it’s another wonderful showcase for OM, as are the other Bruckner symphonies they’ve undertaken previously. But it’s probably a better move than recording yet another version of a well-known piece by one of the romantic composers. I admire the choice.
But admirable as i see the choice, I may be the wrong person to review this. I believe it was CS Lewis who once said that you should only let those who love & understand such genres as mystery novels or science fiction to review such works. He had a point. I recall the dreadful review in a Toronto newspaper, bored with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner mostly because he had no sympathy for dystopian sci-fi.
You see, I don’t really like Bruckner. I’ve tried to like him, have listened to most of his symphonies (portions of all of them), and have left him on a kind of back burner, waiting for the magic to come, and it’s been a long time coming. Eventually, so my thinking goes, I will find my way inside the music, but in the meantime I have been very busy with other composers.
So maybe you shouldn’t take seriously my review of this recording of the Bruckner 6. Every other version I’ve heard seems to plod as though it were a Clydesdale trying to canter. Bruckner has a kind of earnest innocence, like a Billy Graham crusade in a massive stadium with a bad sound system. It’s very hard to make this piece cohere into something that doesn’t seem overblown. Like good rock-n-roll, the simplicity requires a kind of conviction and purity to bring it to life, and it also needs phenomenal energy. YN-S does something rather bold to my ear, as the music really moves. Its supple muscularity is almost unrecognizable as Bruckner, and makes the composer sound like a young man for a change, charged with an energy that’s almost sexual.
The first movement is phenomenally clean, playing that makes this recording a good candidate to be one you’d take into a stereo shop when you want to audition a good sound system. There are lovely little instrumental solos of plaintive beauty, followed by explosive tuttis with astonishing precision. This movement has another function –as well as the closing movemenet—on days when the temperature soars, as a virtual air-conditioner. How? In several places I experienced profound shivers of excitement.
And while we’re talking about the last movement, i noticed something I didn’t notice before, that sounds like a send-up of the “liebestod”, a kind of pyramid built from Wagner’s melody. Because it’s Bruckner i have to take this seriously, in a composer who wouldn’t quote his hero idly nor accidentally. I am still trying to decode it, but in the meantime, the final minute is a tremendous affirmation. Of what i have no idea, but i’ll take it, mysterious as it is.
The movements in between are fabulous. The second movement is my favourite, a wonderfully intense composition that works no matter who conducts. Whether it unfolds slowly or more quickly, Bruckner takes us deep into the heart of the matter. Again YN-S has things moving at a good pace, and employs a subtly understated beginning. Movement three is a charming scherzo, going yet again from mysterious opening to broad eruptions from brass choirs blasting through the clouds like shafts of sunlight seen painted onto antique stained glass.
It’s not just YN-S though. The orchestra plays with wonderful clarity and precision. I don’t want to be cynical, but if there is an actual strategic purpose to these Bruckner recordings–objectives such as demonstrating the orchestra’s chops, showing us that YN-S has come of age and that we can expect great things in future– then that purpose is being fulfilled. I spoke of rock music earlier, in thinking of honest simplicity, vividness that’s sharply painted. Bruckner is a composer who to me always seemed to take his time, not so much saying big words, as small words in a big voice spoken slowly, whose rhetoric is glacial compared to the quicksilver of Mahler in works of equivalent scale. But maybe I have to revise some of my thinking as that’s not how he comes across in this portrayal. Instead he’s more of a populist politician or a country preacher, a cagey fighter quiet as rope-a-dope, suddenly erupting in powerful punches to your solar plexus. This is powerful testimony, as direct as a photograph of a mountain range or a sunset. And when OM paint Bruckner, it’s a flattering portrait indeed.
And need i add, this is a Bruckner cycle that i must explore further. Previously YN-S and the OM recorded Bruckner Symphonies 4, 7, 8 and 9. I am glad that I’m being encouraged to hear Bruckner in a new way. I don’t think I will underestimate him again.