The MSO and Edo de Waart triumph in a challenging Bruckner epic.
Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 is fraught with peril. First, at 70 minutes, it taxes energy, stamina and concentration. Mass unison passages within section and across sections test ensemble discipline. Odd, busy stretches of tricky hocketing abound. The structure and dramatic shape of the piece are complicated and by no means obvious. If this music is to play, dramatically, the conductor must interpret and shape its big contours while attending to its maddening details.
Friday afternoon, music director Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony soared with astonishing ease over the high bars Bruckner set in front of them.
De Waart never seems to be doing much on the podium, until you really study him. Then the vast range of shadings within the rather narrow range of his gestures become legible. This is conducting smarter, not harder. His beat and expressive motion are always just a little ahead, and in that split second the alert musicians of the MSO can read him and respond. This makes their playing vivid and specific phrase by phrase, and the nuance of it draws you in. Such playing rewards attention; the more closely you listen, the more you hear. That just-ahead stick technique also builds confidence because the players know just where they are. So in the first movement, those remarkable pointillistic bits for winds, percussion and sometimes pizzicato strings came off with the sure precision of a Times Square light show.
De Waart sets the tone, but the players must listen and produce. They did. Bruckner’s many call-and-response passages sounded like real exchanges, and that sound of authenticity cannot occur unless whole sections listen and feel the Q-and-A of it. Such careful listening leads to gloriously accurate intonation, which set aglow the air inside Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. That resonance gave weight and mass to the blasts of brass, which were not merely loud but heavy at Bruckner’s climaxes, which often occur very low in pitch. Good pitch added heft to the string sound, too, most of all in the juggernaut string melody in the second movement, with violas in the lead.
All of this has to do with the physically thrilling side of the sounds de Waart drew from his MSO Friday. He also gathered those thrills into tectonic plates of music, great masses of sound that build as plots and subplots accumulate in a grand, complicated novel. Like such a novel, this symphony encompasses heroic vistas and delicate intimacy. The most gripping episode involved the whittling down of that densely harmonized viola theme to a skeleton of spare, exposed notes and the rebuilding of it into a vast melody that spins out as if into infinity. That melody, by the way, stretched without sprawling because de Waart parsed it so surely.
This symphony (heard in its 1878 revision), with all its convolutions of material and form, can devolve into an incomprehensible mess. De Waart understood it and the players understood him, and it became a page-turner of a Romantic novel. Still, do read Roger Ruggeri’s program notes; it helps to have a map.
Joseph Kalichstein was the MSO’s guest in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22. Kalichstein has played here many times with the MSO, the Fine Arts Quartet and as a touring recitalist and trio member. He drew a pleasing harpsichord glitter from the MSO’s Steinway, and it fit the galant inflections of this concerto. The crystal clarity of chords were the highlight of a first-movement cadenza striking in its simplicity, and Kalichstein played the lyrical melody of the slow movement with utmost elegance. Those qualities more than made up for the passing inaccuracies is the speedier left-hand work in the first movement. No such problems cropped up in the fleet tally-ho of the rondo finale.
This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26. For ticket and further information, visit the MSO’s website or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.
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