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San Antonio Symphony, Lang-Lessing, Scheps

Finding the song in Bruckner's granite

June 2, 2012

Richard Wagner was the invisible elephant in the room (specifically, the Majestic Theatre) on June 1, when the San Antonio Symphony closed its season with Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing was the uncommonly perspicacious leader, and Olga Scheps the powerful and precise piano soloist.

Liszt and Bruckner had very different musical personalities, reflecting their very different lives -- Liszt the rock star and jet-setter (so to speak) of the 1840s, Bruckner the monkish provincial of a generation later. But both were devout Catholics, and they were linked through Wagner. Liszt’s innovative harmony prepared the way for Wagner’s mature style, which in turn influenced Bruckner. Both Liszt and Bruckner admired Wagner’s music, and Wagner admired Liszt’s daughter Cosima enough to marry her.  (To extend the line of influence still further back, Liszt was heavily influenced by Frédéric Chopin, whose Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 27, No. 2, was Ms. Scheps’s encore.)

Bruckner’s mountainous symphonies have appeared only rarely in San Antonio, but soon after Mr. Lang-Lessing’s appointment as music director he made known his determination to end the neglect. The Seventh is generally regarded as the most accessible point of entry, with its lyrical opening allegro, its deeply felt slow movement, its tremendously exciting scherzo and its giddy, if rather granitic, finale. Even the Seventh, however, can seem episodic and sometimes -- with its massive brass and craggy, outsized architecture -- forbidding.

But Mr. Lang-Lessing has a way with Bruckner. I was struck by the musicality and seamlessness of this performance. Lines that often seem rigid or angular were supple and organic, even songful. The scherzo took on an irresistible momentum. The tempo and dynamics in the adagio were shaped with deep tenderness. (For those who keep track of such things, the orchestra was playing from the Nowak edition, in which the timpani, triangle and cymbals underscore the climax of the slow movement.) As we’ve come to expect, Mr. Lang-Lessing got very clean ensemble from the orchestra.

The augmented strings sounded substantial but transparent, and they were beautifully balanced, not at all bottom-heavy. The cellos played gorgeously in the opening allegro. The four Wagner tubas (joined in the slow movement by Lee Hipp on bass tuba) and the augmented horn section produced a nicely burnished sound. A minor annoyance was a slight but persistent discrepancy in tuning somewhere in the woodwinds.

Liszt is another composer who has been underrepresented on San Antonio Symphony programs. But the Piano Concerto No. 2 was the fifth Liszt work to be heard in the past two seasons, marking the bicentennial of the composer’s birth.  

In the concerto, Ms. Scheps proved more than equal to the composer’s demands for both strength and delicacy. She brought a silken touch to her ascending lines in the wistful opening, and then a terrifying left-hand roar as the music turned stormy. Her diction was admirably clear throughout -- as was the orchestra’s. Cellist Ken Freudigman contributed his beautiful tone to a lovely exchange with the pianist.

The pianist delivered an aptly dreamy, intimate, highly personal account of the Chopin nocturne. 

Mike Greenberg