Sunday, 20 January 2013

Bruckner 5: The All-Conquering Chorale

It comes to something when the only piece of Bruckner I've so far offered you on this blog is the almost totally unknown cantata, Heligoland. A symphony is long overdue. So this post will be about one of my favourite Bruckner symphonies, the Symphony No.5 in B flat major. I've chosen that one because it seems to lag in the shadows of symphonies like the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth. Part of the reason for that is that the Fifth is a more complex piece than any of those symphonies. Its complexities can make it appear daunting to listeners new to it. They certainly had that effect on me. As I've got to know it more and more the work has never ceased to reveal its secret and my early inability to make any sense of the structure of the first movement has disappeared. My grasp of the huge, contrapuntal finale - which used to make my head spin - has also deepened over time and turned into unalloyed affection. 

The first movement's structure is as far from irrational as can be. It begins, unusually for Bruckner, with a slow introduction. Grasping that simple fact simplifies matters no end! Over a very quiet pizzicato tread (rather than the traditional Brucknerian tremolo) the strings weave a beautiful web of counterpoint as if evoking old church rites. A rising arpeggio rockets up, loudly. In answer to this challenge, brass and horns sound a rousing chorale - a chorale whose bass figure provides the basis for an exciting crescendo and a thrilling climax. That climax is accompanied by a tremolo. The tremolo lingers and acts as the pivot on which we are swung into the main Allegro section of the movement, accompanying the superb first subject on violas and cellos. As with other Bruckner symphonies, this noble subject group is followed by two more. The second subject draws on two elements from the introduction - pizzicato writing and chorale-like themes, combining them and overlaying them with a plaintive song-like melody. The third subject is a breath of major-key fresh air with a grandly rustic-sounding continuation, initiating a mighty exposition close. The development section begins in haunting fashion, working on the material of the introduction with true Brucknerian magic. He then develops the first subject, so thoroughly in fact that he can begin his recapitulation whilst continuing with this development and only bring us back onto familiar ground with the reappearance of the second subject. It's a masterly achievement of the kind that only the greatest symphonists can pull off. The coda crescendos on the first subject, holds back again, then climaxes excitingly.

The great second movement Adagio is rich, noble and very melodic. Its structure is essentially ABABA, opening with another treading pizzicato over which a solo oboe introduces the somewhat disconsolate-sounding main subject of the A section. The B section is led by a glorious C major string melody and Bruckner uses it to bring a gorgeous glow into the movement - as well as to create a fascinating symphonic arch. Majestic, golden climaxes about in this Adagio and Bruckner builds many of them on his fragile oboe theme, such as the fanfare-rich climax of the central section. It took me years to realise that Bruckner has pulled off this radiant transformation. It just clicked with me one day. The themes come and go, fresh and beautiful embellishments gracing their varied returns.

The third movement Scherzo is on a large-scale too and is certainly not light relief. We are taken to a sinister, somewhat violent world abounding in unpredictabilities. Mahler wasn't the first to go down  that route and you can, I believe, hear the coming of 'the Mahler scherzo' very clearly at times in this movement. It starts with a speeded-up restatement of the pizzicato music that opened the Adagio, over which woodwinds play the first of several themes - the one based on a falling scale. An innocent landler-like theme sounds precarious in these surroundings. The trio section is more relaxed (and delightful!) though no less imaginative. Amid its gentle pleasures please listen out for something surprising (and thrilling).

What of that mighty (and highly enjoyable) final movement? It opens just like the symphony itself, with one disconcerting difference - a passing comment (beginning with a plunging octave) from a solo clarinet. The main subjects of the first two movements are reviewed, as if in a flashback. The clarinet adds its rather dismissive-sounding comments between each of them. Clearly this is an echo of the opening of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The clarinet's theme is then extended by the strings and turned into the Finale's first theme - a fugue subject, which is taken up and run with at the start of the main Allegro section. The fugue winds down and the fast-flowing lyricism of the second subject group begins. Eventually this too runs its lovely course and, after a dramatic transition, we arrive a tense pause. At which Bruckner point plays his trump card: A glorious brass chorale met magically by quiet strings. On this magnificent theme he builds a new fugue - a sweeping, thrilling, all-encompassing fugue that eventually sucks in the first fugue theme, thus becoming a double fugue. The jubilant counterpoint becomes a great torrent. There is, in time, a pause for breath, both to enable us to savour the singing second subject again and to brace ourselves for the symphony's towering closing stages, launched (in glory) by the first movement's superb first subject. Thrillingly, Bruckner holds back again but then begins his gradual crescendo towards the final triumphant, drawing in all his strands as he does so. That triumph is overwhelming, with the chorale standing proud at the head of it. 


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