Hege, BSO impressive in Bruckner's Ninth

May 26, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Anton Bruckner's time, unlike Gustav Mahler's, may never come.

Many who have long been keen on Mahler's extremes of emotion and sonority, his embrace of the sublime and the vulgar, still have trouble adjusting to Bruckner's sound world.

Such folks, taking comfort in Brahms' pungent dismissal of Bruckner's works as "symphonic boa constrictors," are missing an awful lot. Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played with impressive security and tonal beauty Thursday evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, is a case in point.

This unfinished score says more, reveals more, than many a complete symphony. It presents a profound drama that starts, like Beethoven's Ninth, in a primeval realm and fights its way to higher, clearer, cleansing ground.

Bruckner's symphonies are likened to Gothic cathedrals, with great musical arches and spires taking shape one stone at a time. The Ninth gives precisely that impression; it's even possible, in the thundering Scherzo movement, to imagine gargoyles, some threatening, others grinning wickedly.

Such unsettling shadows could have been put entirely to rest had Bruckner lived to complete a fourth movement. Even so, in this cathedral, light periodically catches the stained glass windows and opens up a redemptive path.

BSO resident conductor Daniel Hege conveyed much of this imagery. He did not delve as deeply as others have; a certain reserve kept some of Bruckner's soul under wraps. But Hege's sense of proportion, his handling of dynamic contrasts, his sensitivity to rhythmic momentum yielded an arresting performance.

The brass met their challenge here quite sturdily; the horns and gleaming quartet of matching Wagner tubas sounded particularly impressive. From the strings, there was admirable clarity and expressiveness.

In the first half of the program, Alisa Weilerstein made her BSO debut with Haydn's D major Cello Concerto. Not yet 20, Weilerstein is already on the career fast track, thanks to a sure technique and a very strong musical personality. There wasn't a note in the cellist's performance that didn't have color and interpretive intent.

In the first movement, she sometimes pushed too aggressively, producing a thick sound at odds with the silken support Hege was coaxing from the ensemble. Elsewhere, though, the playing was consistently warm and lyrical.

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