MSO: Bruckner’s Symphony No.7

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Published: 6th September, 2017

One of my favourite motets is Bruckner’s charmingly simple SATB “Locus Iste“, but I have never fully appreciated his orchestral works, so this rare opportunity to hear a Bruckner Symphony played by the MSO with Sir Andrew Davis conducting was one I welcomed. Perhaps my attitude to Bruckner is more widely shared, and in a departure from usual programming and with nothing but the Symphony (just over an hour long) on the program, Sir Andrew Davis, with the MSO on stage, gave us an illustrated introduction to the work as the first half of the program.

The usual pre-concert talk, attended by a smaller number of interested patrons, was given by MSO violinist Andrew Hall, who talked more about Bruckner himself than the work, so that he added value to the whole package, rather than duplicating anything that would later be part of Sir Andrew’s presentation.

We learned that Bruckner’s fame rests only on a handful of symphonies and religious works, and that Symphony 7 uses basically a classical orchestra with augmented strings, the typical “Noah’s Ark” of woodwind, tympani, a full brass line up, with French Horns and Wagner Tubas.

Hall talked of Bruckner’s appeal being “the art of the build”, where a simple motif is taken over time to a climax “of shattering proportions”. It is “a long ride” and time and patience would need to be invested to fully appreciate it. “It grows on you; it grows in you”, Hall said. His very personal account of the role of Bruckner in healing with its message of hope, redemption and salvation was powerful, and I was hopeful that my appreciation for Bruckner rested in enjoying the simple early motifs, and patiently waiting for the long development of ideas.

Hall’s brief talk allowed us all time to reflect, and enjoy a coffee in preparation for a substantial performance. Returning to Hamer Hall it was exciting to see the full orchestra sitting there ready, as Sir Andrew came to the stage to enlighten us further about Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. At the podium, new Assistant Conductor Tianyi Lu stood ready to conduct the excerpts.

Sir Andrew said he would try to provide us with a “road map” to help us navigate our journey. He began by highlighting Bruckner’s morbid fascination with the concept of death, and his fame as a virtuoso organist. These facts did help on the path to enlightenment, though when it came to excerpts, the main concept he emphasised was “inversion”. Inversion as a technique for musical development is one of the more difficult to ascertain aurally. An opportunity was missed here. How much clearer this could have been with some visual representations of the themes, and their inversions. A creative teacher, used to helping students to uncover meaning, might have been a useful consultant to assist Sir Andrew’s erudite mini-lecture.

Sir Andrew did draw our attention to the extensive use of tremolo in the strings, and the interesting ways he works with string sections using different speeds of bowing to get that sound. He pointed out the use of Wagner tubas as a sort of tribute to Wagner’s Parsifal, and the quotation in the second movement of Bruckner’s own Te Deum theme – “non confundar in aeternum” – as a threnody for Wagner who died as Bruckner was working on this movement. Sir Andrew referred also to Bruckner’s improvisatory treatment of the “trio” section of the Scherzo third movement, which I did later find a useful concept in appreciating the work. He suggested that the fourth movement and its ominous brass, and frequent changes of mood are reminders of the difficulty of holding faith.

Composers over all periods of musical history have used all sorts of techniques of taking a musical idea and “growing” it, through repetition, variation, and contrast. They develop musical ideas in small ways, to create phrases and motifs, and in larger ways, to create sections within movements, and then also to form movements, and large works. Some techniques are quite noticeable when you listen, others can be less obvious. They require a more intellectual approach to uncovering their presence.

Although it was wonderful to hear sections of the work from the orchestra (conducted gracefully by Tianyi Lu), it was not easy to hear the relationship between Sir Andrew’s talk and those excerpts.

Bruckner’s development of musical ideas does take place over a long period, and it is incumbent on the listener to be patient, and to take on the “immense journey” as Sir Andrew described it. And so, after interval, the audience joined the MSO for a little over an hour of music. The quality of the music-making was excellent, with superb woodwind solos, horns full of foreboding, the four Wagner tubas mostly holding their own, some thrilling solo and ensemble trumpets, and spectacular low brass. They all had moments to call their own.

For the entire symphony, the strings were in exceptional form. It seemed to be something of a marathon for them, with never a moment to rest, and very often they coloured the sound with effective tremolos of epic proportions.

Although I still haven’t been blessed by the feeling of a successful personal musical journey, it was clear that some in the audience were. I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity to have entered the listening experience with more understanding of the background and the composition of the work. It was a long ride, and not an easy one. The embraces between the members of the string section as they departed the stage seemed to indicate that it was for them also an immense journey.

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Margaret Arnold heard the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No.7 at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre, Melbourne on August 31, 2017.