San Antonio Symphony,
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.)
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.