Bruckner performance has the notes--not the music

April 05, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

With their gigantic masses that shift almost as slowly and as inexorably as tectonic plates, Bruckner's symphonies are the most dangerous Fafnirs in the repertory. Play a Mahler symphony poorly, and it's bad; play one by Bruckner badly, and it's also boring.

The performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 by the Baltimore Symphony last night in Meyerhoff Hall was neither bad nor boring, but it was ordinary. This was probably conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski's fault. The BSO does not play much Bruckner, but it gave a great performance of the Sixth Symphony a few seasons back under Gunter Herbig. Last night they played all of Bruckner's notes at Skrowaczewski's tempos. It often seemed -- particularly in the first two movements -- that nothing was happening.

Some of the conductor's ideas sounded peculiar. He took the scherzo, for example, too quickly. The musicians were able to play the notes. What they weren't able to do at that speed was to pound out the Brucknerian fury with sufficient emphasis to create a sense of irony and evil.

In the first movement, phrase did not lead into phrase with the needed cumulative force. The final slow movement -- perhaps the most gigantic ever to "close" (Bruckner did not live to complete a fourth movement) a symphony -- was much better, with the music seeming to vanish at the end.

The concert began with a miraculous performance of Richard Strauss' Oboe Concerto by guest soloist Heinz Holliger. The Swiss oboist has a sound that may not be beautiful to ears accustomed to the the best American players: It is reedy and thin, and there is no mistaking it for a flute or a clarinet. But with this lighter, brighter sound, Holliger soars.

Skrowaczewski and the orchestra gave him an accompaniment that could have been tidier -- the strings often seemed somewhat behind the soloist -- but Holliger can convince one that the Strauss concerto -- not from the composer's top drawer -- is a masterpiece.

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