CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 11/20/08
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor (Haas version). (Herbert Blomstedt, cond.)
English-speaking Canada is personified by the lumberjack Johnny Canuck; England by the portly, plain-thinking John Bull; Ireland by the Sean-Bhean Bhocht, or "Poor Old Woman." Germany, meanwhile, is anthropomorphized in cartoons and songs and political jokes as a figure dubbed "German Michael." He's a basically good-natured and frequently-put-upon son of the soil. In illustrations, he's typically shown wearing a nightcap, as if he's a little too drowsy to be sure exactly what's going on.
When Anton Bruckner gave the main theme of his Eighth Symphony's scherzo the nickname "German Michael," he had the character's rusticity firmly in mind. Bruckner's scherzo is ungenteel, roughhewn music. Some listeners just plain don't like it. But I doubt if anyone at Thursday's Cleveland Orchestra concert was the least bit put off by German Michael. Guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt's approach to Bruckner's Scherzo—and to the symphony as a whole—was cerebral rather than colorful. And therein lay its particular strength.
There's no doubt that this octogenarian veteran of the San Francisco Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra knows his Bruckner. He leads the seventy-some minutes of the Haas version from memory: a remarkable feat in itself. And he has a clear sense of Bruckner's architecture that makes itself felt throughout his interpretation—that indeed often seems its raison d'être. There are conductors who shape the first movement's second theme more ardently, who make a more transcendent moment out of the entrance of the harps twenty-some bars into the Adagio, and, yes, who give German Michael a more distinctively countrified texture. Some listeners may find Blomstedt, by comparison, somewhat clinical for their tastes. To be sure, Blomstedt is inclined to be logical and prosaic. But as he did in last November's account of the Brahms First Symphony, Blomstedt crafts his prose so carefully, amping the intensity bit by bit, that when you reach big climaxes you're taken aback by how intensely poetic the prose has become.
The shortcomings of Thursday evening's performance were chiefly minor faults of execution: a lack of crispness in some attacks; a certain lack of dynamic subtlety in the opening movement; an odd lack of buoyancy to the passage, two-and-a-half or three minutes into the scherzo, in which the woodwinds take over the music above the soft roll of a kettledrum. They weren't enough to detract in any substantial way from a performance that—though by no means the last word in Bruckner interpretation—was a tremendously impressive example of its kind.
One scholar has suggested Bruckner's scherzo was inspired by an old song about German Michael which reads, in part: "Throw away that old nightcap. / Dreaminess is just a trap." I can think of no more fitting motto for Blomstedt's alert, clear-headed, and altogether compelling approach to one of Bruckner's most demanding creations.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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