Hager, Brahms, Bruckner
I remember when a performace of a Bruckner symphony happened infrequently enough to make it an event. Now everyone performs Bruckner. So long as they understand Bruckner, as the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg did tonight under its former chief conductor Leopold Hager in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, I won’t complain.
Hager set up Bruckner’s 7th intelligently, with an well-chosen first half of the concert. Bruckner owed his musical development to many years spent as a church organist, so Hager brought us to church. Hager’s own setting of Psalm 2, a work from his own youth (he composed it in 1955), opened the concert – a modern work with an almost Stravinsky-like edge, with the orchestra driving the music forward forcefully before reaching apotheosis. Austrian baritone Markus Volpert and the Salzburg Bach Chorus provided the text and additional excitement.
Hager followed this with one of Brahms‘ most-original works, his Alto Rhapsody, with the mellifluous Franco-Russian alto Svetlana Lifar joining the orchestra and chorus. Brahms set a poem by Goethe to music, secular but with a religious undertone, much as he had done for his Requiem one year earlier, with the same balance of melancholic and uplifting spirituality.
Also before the intermission, Hager conducted the chorus in two a capella motets by Bruckner: Locus iste and Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. As forward looking as Hager’s psalm was, these two were backwards-looking works by Bruckner for church choirs (in St. Florian and Linz, respectively). The Salzburg Bach Chorus sang out tremendously.
This introductory hour of music perfectly enabled Hager’s interpretation of Bruckner’s 7th for the second hour(-plus). The Mozarteum Orchestra is a medium-sized band, and although augmented this evening for the Bruckner, it still came out sounding a bit thin. Hager compensated by having them play legato, emphasizing that these were chorales, and should therefore be sung by the instruments. Bruckner was a man of the church even when in the concert hall. Indeed, even the adagio movement, composed as funeral music for the a-religious (and wholly amoral) Richard Wagner, still contained music Bruckner wrote for his own Te Deum (composed at the same time).
The orchestra responded to Hager’s concept. The last time I heard this symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle in the Musikverein in May, the Berliners sounded more lush, but they did not understand the music. Hager and his Mozarteum Orchestra may have lacked the sparkle of their more-famous Berlin colleagues, but they had more to say tonight.