For reasons unclear to me, the Salzburg Festival decided to perform a whole lot of Bruckner this summer (nine numbered symphonies and some religious works). I certainly will not complain. I selected three symphonies (tickets are not cheap, so I had no desire to waste good money on listening to the likes of Dudamel or Barenboim attempt Bruckner), starting tonight with Symphony #8.
The Vienna Philharmonic was conducted by the 87-year-old Swede Herbert Blomstedt. Riccardo Chailly had been scheduled, but he broke his arm in a fall last month. Although Chailly is an excellent interpreter of Bruckner (and I heard him conduct #6 with the Philarmonic in the Musikverein earlier this year), I actually thought the substitution fortuitous (although I do wish Chailly a good recovery). I have heard Blomstedt conduct already this year (a masterful Brahms Requiem with the Vienna Symphony, also in the Musikverein), and I’ve heard him before as well – but never for Bruckner. The man has a sense of architecture, which applies well with this, the mightiest of Bruckner’s cathedrals of sound.
This was a controlled reading, measured, structured, and constructed to the sky. This cathedral was not just of hewed stone, but had its ornaments. It had its humorous gargoyles. The woodwinds provided birds fluttering and pearching in its towers. It had its brutal stained glass. The light came through the widows high up in the dome. The instruments echoed off the walls and came back to confront each other. Although not scored for bells, they too pealed in the pizzicatti strings or the pounding of the timpani. Blomstedt and the Philharmonic understood and reproduced all of this from Bruckner’s architectural renderings. Not everyone can make this symphony work (the last time I remember hearing it live was about twenty-five years ago with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, and they certainly couldn’t figure out what to do with Bruckner’s plans). So not a bad way to experience my first night at the Salzburg Festival.