Dallas — You have to prepare to properly hear a Bruckner symphony. Not studying the score necessarily, although that helps, but by releasing your concept of time.
Bruckner's Symphony No. 5, which received a magnificent performance by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Musical Director Jaap van Zweden on Thursday evening, is extremely long in real time. Recordings clock in at an average of 90 minutes, with some shorter by as much as 20 minutes and others considerably longer. The DSO performance came in at 80 minutes. But this is in real tick-tock time.
Bruckner symphonies move in galactic time as he creates huge edifices of sound. Think of the size of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as Bruckner and other churches, from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the church down the street, as every other composer’s work. Leave your earthly watch at home and with it our limited concept of time, which vanishes once you leave the dictatorial cycle of night and day.
Bruckner, who was a devout Catholic, strives to write a musical St. Peter’s. Unlike the equally long symphonies of Gustsv Mahler, Bruckner’s symphonies have no interest in the petty worries of humans: life, death, resurrection and our place in big scheme. Bruckner attempts to give us a glimpse of the timeless nature of God.
Van Zweden delivered a thoughtful and detail-laden reading of the complex score, letting the musicians play without micromanaging, and the DSO responded with a splendid performance. It filled every square inch of the Meyerson Symphony Center with magnificent sounds.
Van Zweden brought out all of the different moods, from awesome glory to a German peasant dance, without moving them out of context. In a symphony that is constantly shifting harmonically, he kept the music grounded so it didn’t sound indecisive.
Pizzicato passages abound in this symphony. It is a difficult task to get all of the plunks precisely placed together; even one stray will ruin the effect. Not so on Thursday; they were right together as if they were played by one gigantic string instrument. Another detail in the last movement is a purposely written "squawk" in the clarinet, out of the surrounding tempo and dynamic schemes with both accents and staccato dots.
Clarinetist Gregory Radon, He of the Beautiful Sound, took obvious glee in following Bruckner’s markings. Bruckner was a church organist and this instrument influences his use of the orchestra. Think of multiple manuals: one for brass, one for strings, one for winds and another with super-quiet heavenly stop, like the aeoline.
The organ also has couplers that allow the addition of octaves below and above the root note as well as combining the other manuals. This is what you will hear in Bruckner’s fifth symphony. Long passages with the orchestra in octaves are common. Intonation is critical and the DSO was right on the money.
Also noticeable is the use of the brass instruments, in sections and combined, in choralelike passages as well as adding the brass en masse to the texture in the biggest moments. You can hear Bruckner "pulling out the brass stop." DSO brass gave a superb performance: gleaming sound with perfect intonation and ensemble. Bravo to the tuba.
Horn sections in orchestras are like private clubs whose inner workings take place in secret, and outsiders, defined as everyone else on earth, are not allowed. Not really, but they are always a tight group. Principal horn David Cooper rallied his troops to deliver as good a performance as you will ever hear. Even the notoriously risky "bells up" sections were precisely in tune and flawlessly delivered.
All of the principal winds gave their solo passages the proper Brucknerian heft. Oboist Erin Hannigan was particularly outstanding as she darkened her sound in some of the solos.
The only problem with this performance is a common one and difficult to correct. Bruckner writes fortissimo (ff) frequently and uses the even louder triple forte (fff) here and there. Yet the biggest moment of all is at the very end—the final 31 measures. The problem: How do you scale all of the loud passages so that the audience notices the finality of the ending?
Van Zweden didn’t manage to do this. We had "bells up" from the horn section in the first movement. Many really big moments followed. One of the problems of multiple big sounds is that each becomes a false ending for the audience, leading to some disappointment that the symphony continues, at least to those unfamiliar with the piece.
However, the final few measures were glorious and somewhat differentiated by observance of the accents that Bruckner puts on every note.
The audience went wild.