Tradition has it to dismiss Bruckner’s symphonies as nothing more than ‘washing machine music’.
When a former colleague once threw that disparaging remark into conversation about the composer, I hit back with the retort, “Yeah, but you love Wagner. And he rarely reached a climax.”
I didn’t win the argument. Now I ‘get’ Wagner, I do rather regret saying it. Such a puerile response.
More to the point, I’m not entirely sure why I felt the need to defend Bruckner. Listening back to the Staatskapelle’s Prom from last night, I agree with my former colleague’s original assertion. I might even feel the need to tweak it.
Bruckner isn’t washing machine music in the way we’d expect a washing machine to function. Bruckner’s music is essentially nothing more than a rinse cycle.
This has nothing to do with Daniel Barenboim’s direction of the Stadtskapelle. We need to go a little deeper for the reason I struggle with Bruckner.
The first time I heard Bruckner’s 4th symphony was at a concert hall ten or so years back. I’d been asked to shoot some video of an orchestra, conduct some interviews and edit together a video package which could be embedded on their website.
The interior of the hall made for a scintillating view (and I’d just purchased a delicious wide angle lens too) and the shimmering opening to the symphony being rehearsed in the hall at the time of the shoot fitted the visuals perfectly.
I’d discovered the joys of tilts and pans on a fixed tripod too. Simple shots emphasising the drama of the surroundings cut to the seemingly understated beauty of Bruckner’s music seemed like a no-brainer.
The person commissioning the piece didn’t agree (to this day I remain unclear what he really knows about video production anyway), refused to pay costs, a fee and, to add insult to injury, insisted I handed over all the material I had shot. “We’d like to edit the material together instead.” Instinct kicked in, the words ‘trust’, and ‘lack of’ were bandied around quite a lot and there the situation was left.
From that day to this Bruckner’s 4th has been a closed door to the rest of his works. I approach it and the rest of his symphonies with prejudice. His climaxes are over-prepared and ultimately underwhelming. His scoring is overworked – the musical illustration of someone so concerned about the detail that the bigger picture seems to be lost. Bruckner 4 at least is something one just gets through.
The Staatskapelle are playing three Bruckner symphonies this week. What I’m wondering is whether I’ll have changed my mind about Bruckner by the time they leave the country.