Wheels of Cheese #4 – Rattle Conducts Bruckner’s Ninth

And so my insane journey to listen to everything in the June edition of Gramophone begins – with, perhaps, one of the most eschatalogical of all works, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, in a new four movement version under the baton of the mop haired, cheese buying ex-percussionist from Liverpool (I so wanted to write ‘ex-percussionist from the Kaiser Chiefs’), Sir Simon Rattle, and his band of merry funsters from Berlin, the Berlin Philharmoniker.

As most people are aware (which is something one says at the start of a sentence where many people aren’t) the Ninth was Bruckner’s last, unfinished symphony (got it?) – dedicated to God and cut short, perhaps ironically, by that very Chap three movements in. Bruckner had, in fact, started a fourth movement, but various pages were stolen by souvenir hunters on his death bed (true!), used by Mrs Bruckner to make a paper dress to wear at her daughter’s wedding to the clergyman Janssons (false, there was no Mrs Bruckner, poor Anton!), and pilfered by the Brahmsian faction, for use as toilet paper, or as they call it in German Keyster-Wiepen (check this – ed).

The new four movement version is, we are assured, the result of extensive scholarship, extensive scholarship and then a bit more extensive scholarship. Again, you can watch Sir Simon and his comfortable sweater here for the details. And the result is…

I think, unconvincing. First thing to say is that the first three movements remain magnificent, and I think this is a great performance of them (all right so the ‘biggie biggie’ bits are a bit thick set, but I tend to like my thundering-against-the-madness-and-glory-of-existence to be given the full heav-ho), but I think Rattle shows a superb sense of timing and pace. There is a seam running through the symphony that Rattle holds to, without getting lost.

I particularly like the Scherzo, which becomes a series of mad dances, as though we are moving through a room where different terpsichorean delights are taking place – we check back on each one in turn to see the protagonists swirling about to their respective tunes. It reminded me of the Devil’s Dance in Mahler’s Fourth. I know the law of review writing is that everything in Bruckner is supposed to be compared to a cathedral, but this movement is one where the pleasures are more immanent than transcendental. The third movement is, thanks Anton, thanks Simon, magnificent – Death in all its guises, not all of them negative or abasing.

But the fourth movement… I’ve listened sitting down, I’ve listened standing up, I’ve listened while skipping gaily through a field of tulips with my faithful hound Rudi bounding ahead of me, and I can’t remember a thing about it, except for the end, where all the themes from the other movements come crashing in. It seems thinner than the other movements, both in ideas and in orchestration. Rattle writes in the booklet that ‘all the strangeness in the movement is Bruckner’s’, but the strangeness seems less strange than in the other movements. It is the strangeness of obsessive repetition which is, to me, less compelling than the strangeness of not only holding any number of competing melodies in your head, but somehow synthesising. I suspect that this fourth movement is genuine Bruckner – Bruckner the workman coming up with some ideas before Bruckner the genius comes and bangs them into their gloriously misshapen shape.

Famously, Bruckner tended to build towards climaxes that never come. It has always seemed apt to me that his musical career ends the same way. Whether the problem is with me being stuck on the old valedictory movement, or with this version, history will tell. Bet you a fiver this version doesn’t make it. But, still, a glorious failure.

Wheels of Cheese #3 – Anton Bruckner

I adore crazy old Anton Bruckner with his ultramontanist brow, his jaggedy jaggedy beak and his great big holy foolishness. What an idiot he was! I wish he was around now so I could knock his hat off as he walked down the street, or push my finger into his chest and then flick his nose when I ‘made him look’. Did you ever see a man more deserving of a wedgie? Good old dumb-as-fuck Anton Bruckner, a man who wouldn’t know a train was up him until the passengers started getting out.

Bruckner holds, I think, an almost unique place in art – a genius who all the lovers of that art tend to feel superior to. One does not discuss Bruckner – one mocks him, or more often defends him from mockery, even where no mockery appears to exist. He is always, even by his most ardent supporters, to be defended.

So, I come not to bury him but to praise him. I find Bruckner astonishing. Great art is always the art of doubt (no it’s not – ed.) and Bruckner is an artist of heroic doubts. He seems to both prove and show the limits of the Keatsian notion of Negative Capability ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Bruckner did – like, perhaps – Van Gogh, reach for facts and reason (that the facts and reason he strove for were theological should not make us dismiss them as mystical), with his failure to achieve them driving his art. Nor was he particularly capable of ‘being’ in this state. Bruckner grapples. I sense that if God had turned up and give him the answer he wouldn’t have composed. Bruckner writes to desperately fill in the silence that God has left, and waits again and again for the reply. The silence at the end of a Bruckner symphony is heart breaking for that reason. God could reply, and chooses not to.

Which is why I am intrigued by the first piece of music I am going to listen to in my absurd project – a four movement version of Bruckner’s Ninth. I have long loved the three movement version – there seemed something particularly apt about Bruckner’s final series of questions to his Creator being cut short by the Big Man Himself coming to get him. But now, a four movement version. I won’t go into the scholarship of the thing – if you are interested here’s a video of the hero of this blog, Sir Simon Rattle, discussing the new version – here. Rattle, who obviously didn’t know he was being filmed judging by his sweater, speaks at length, and in hushed tones, about how the final movement was reconstructed, and if you haven’t had – or don’t plan to have – sex in a while, it’s a terrific way to spend 19 minutes. For those of us whose pleasures are more carnal, I suggest getting the work itself, and going on yet another extraordinary journey into the genius of Bruckner.

At least, I hope so. I haven’t listened to it yet…

Wheels of Cheese #2: Pomp. Circumstance.

Rued Langgaard

Rued Langgaard In Happier Times

Like a great many thinking people, one thing I can never get quite enough of is pomp. Whether it’s the solemn pomp of the state funeral, the purple pomp of the pontifical parade, or the sudden pomp of an 1870s sergeant major cresting the hill upon which you’re trying to have a picnic, you get between me and a display of pomp at your peril. So it was not without regret that I chose to forego the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, with its splendour, its pageantry and its overweening pomp to retire to my bunker, deep beneath the Earth’s surface, in order to investigate further what I will be listening to from the June issue of Gramophone (featuring the brutally handsome classical guitarist Milos Karadaglic on the front cover).

A quick survey reveals the following. I shall be listening to at least one Ring Cycle – Wagner’s probably. I will hear Beethoven’s piano sonatas complete, incomplete, and vaguely scattered across cds as filler material (which is how Beethoven would have wanted it). Not a note of Poulenc’s chamber music will escape my beady ear. I will be left debating the political subtext and compositional ironies of every one of Shostakovich’s string quartets, except the Eighth, which we all know is a lament for the victims of facism and war, unless it isn’t.  I shall, dear God, have to listen to that awful piano concerto of Rachmaninov’s at least twice, without thinking of Geoffrey Rush in the nude even once.

I shall delight in the work of the pretty-much-forgotten Polish contemporary of Chopin, Franciszek Lessel as well as the work of the pretty-much-remembered Chopin himself. (A quick wikipedia search reveals that Lessel’s most famous work, his Fantasie in E minor was dedicated to Cecylia Beydale who was for a time his lover, until they discovered they had the same mother. Which is, apparently, frowned on in Poland, and I think rightly. Chopin never fucked his sister).

Those two redoubtable Scotsmen, Sir Alexander MacKenzie and Sr Hamilton Harty (note to self – Harty is Irish – don’t make the same mistake again) will hove into view carrying me, hopefully, on wings of Celtic song. I will listen to the entire EMI recordings of Jacqueline du Pre, without thinking of Rachel Griffiths in the nude even once (question for further research – do all films about classical music feature nude Australians? And how would one find out?)

Finally, I shall be delving deeply into the oeuvre of the obviously insane (visionary – ed.) Danish composer Rued Langgaard, whose sadly unfinished manifesto Fremtidens Frelser og Jesu musikalske Selskab (The Saviour of the Future and the Musical Society of Jesus) attempted to reconcile the demands of art and the church. Hence unfinished, what with, you know, the demands.

It’s going to be quite a long year.