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By Ciarán McAuley

BERLIN, 11 OCTOBER 2007— Virtual concerts on virtual islands: live virtual performers, playing to a live virtual audience. These are the trends at the forefront of the music industry. Be they mere fads or indeed beneficial to music’s dissemination, the online PC game Second Life , recently tapped into the classical world and vice versa and the virtual audience potential is already twice that of Berlin’s.

The acclaimed Berlin Philharmonic has not yet gone cyber in Second Life, yet in light of the recent killer performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony [5 October 2007] directed by Bernard Haitink and the Philharmonie’s provocation and taunting of concert-goers, one wonders when the city’s appreciative audiences will be substituted with subdued cyber "avatars."

Anton Bruckner was born in Linz, Austria in 1824. A devout catholic and composer of the Austro-German romantic tradition, his output comprising of masses, motets and nine symphonies was significantly influenced by the music of Richard Wagner. This association however was a double-edged sword and his symphonies were criticized for their Wagnerian bent.

The Philharmonic presented Leopold Nowak’s edition of Bruckner’s 1890 symphony. A brief digression is needed to examine the historical / editorial controversy which has shrouded this work. No. 8 in c-minor survives quintessentially in two forms: 1887; 1890. Sketching began in 1884 and the completed score was sent to Hermann Levi for approval. Finding the symphony ‘impossible to perform,’ Levi encouraged reworking the symphonic material and the 1890 score was premiered with modest success two years later.

Editorial shenanigans have also added to the debate as to which score is the most "Brucknerian." The Internationale Bruckner-Gesellschaft began editing / publishing Bruckner’s works in the 1930’s with Robert Haas as General Editor. Various editorial decisions came under scrutiny and in the case of the eighth symphony, Hass essentially amalgamated both scores, cut bars blasé and inserted an arrangement he wrote to one of Bruckner’s sketches. He was replaced by Leopold Nowak who later edited both scores.

1887 and 1890 symphonies can be regarded as separate entities. The latter score is shorter in length, broader in orchestration; being composed throughout for eight horns and triple woodwind and tonally less optimistic. In the Allegro moderato, Bruckner replaces the assertive C-major ending of 1887 with a pessimistic petering out in the tonic minor. Furthermore, the Adagio climaxes in E-flat major as opposed to the 1887 C-major.

The Berlin Philharmonic captured the opening Allegro moderato’s ethos aptly and the sublime cello section focused the ensemble at the movement’s inauguration. Haitink’s acute grasp of the movement’s structure and ideal tempos suited to the brass, afforded a performance in which analytical awareness of Bruckner’s sonata form movement became thoroughly irrelevant as the music spoke for itself.

Bruckner’s unconventional placement of the Scherzo and Trio as the second movement of the symphony, set in the same key and tempo as the opening movement, was indeed the pinnacle of the Berlin Philharmonic’s rendition. From the virtuosic violin passagework, to the technical control of the first Horn and Haitink’s ability to free the music of its overriding tertiary feel: this was a listener’s bliss.

The Adagio, however, was somewhat uneven. Whilst the juxtaposition of light tone and burgeoning drama fitted well, a sensitivity of phrasing was lacking here. In addition, brass and percussion ensemble were somewhat unpolished: crash cymbals failed to anticipate allargando’s and conversely trombones overcompensated and accordingly lagged behind. Furthermore, visual discontent broke out in the first violins as to whether the tremolos were measured / unmeasured and the rather abrupt close to this movement, summed it up.

The Finale, in typical Brucknerian three subject sonata form alludes contrapuntally to each of the previous movements and concludes the symphony optimistically in the tonic major. The treatment of non-harmony notes by the brass section in tutti passages was most effective, as was the tension and release displayed in the strings in this movement of contrast.

In short, the Berlin Philharmonic did justice to their reputation: the cellos performed remarkably. Nonetheless, perhaps the Philharmonie would kindly reconsider their tacky approach to the public. From tip-bullying for use of the wash-rooms; to the recent coughing prohibition plastered in red at the front of the program, this establishment must appreciate that audiences are as important to the concert experience as musicians are and if such trivial objection is really important, perhaps they should consider a move to Second Life.

Under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic will perform at Carnegie Hall in New York (13 - 16 November 2007) and on 18 November 2007 at Boston's Symphony Hall.

Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, Ciarán McAuley is an Irish conductor and music critic based in Berlin.  He last wrote on the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze's concert opera Phaedra for Culturekiosque.com  

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