Last week, the Armenian Philharmonic canceled a concert when soloist Shlomo Mintz got sick. Although I was looking forward to hear Mintz perform live, I think I was more disappointed in the end that I would not get to hear Eduard Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic perform Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, after having been surprisingly overwhelmed by these forces combining on Bruckner’s 4th in February.
So, to my delight, posters went up around town yesterday advertising a late addition to the concert schedule: a performance tonight, with the Grieg Piano Concerto and… Bruckner’s 9th. As soon as I saw a poster, I ran as fast as I could to the box office and got a ticket.
I do not understand how they do it. Bruckner cannot be a staple part of their repertory. A functional but not great orchestra normally would not get this right. But obviously God himself, captured in Bruckner’s music, has entered their skins and produced yet another tear-inducing performance. The fact that the orchestra is flawed (strings were shrill, winds missed their attacks) actually made the performance more moving. This is far from a perfect orchestra, and Bruckner was a very humble man, who saw himself as an imperfect servant of the Almighty.
Topchjan clearly had the orchestra well rehearsed. They took a slow tempo, probably deliberately careful because the work was unfamiliar, but a slow tempo works for Bruckner. They played the music as they found it, simply, honestly, and passionately. The first movement built a wonderous tower, the scherzo bit the heart, and the adagio left the earth and climbed to heaven. The acoustics in the Khachaturian Hall – not a huge hall, but very tall – took the sound right up to the high ceiling and brought it back to earth transformed and transformative. Bruckner did not live long enough to complete this symphony, and left three movements behind as his testament, dedicated to none other than “the dear God.” I think the orchestra even managed to play the dedication tonight.
I have heard better orchestras perform this work, including in 2013 already. But did they really understand it so well as these Armenians? I do not cry often at concerts. I don’t give too many standing ovations either. Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic provoked both for the second time this year, both times after performing Bruckner symphonies.
The concert opened with the Grieg Piano Concerto. This was workmanlike. Topchjan does make this orchestra sound better than anyone else, so he could keep the performance lively, flowing, and full of exciting dynamic swells. Tigran Alaverdyan, the soloist, made playing the piano look effortless (I had an excellent view of his fingers). Unfortunately, the Khachaturian Hall’s Steinway piano is not so good – something I’ve noticed before – and sounded rather tinny. This was a piano to use to accompany someone, not to use as a solo instrument.