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A transcendent Bruckner 8th from Gunther Herbig, BSO

A transcendent Bruckner 8th from Gunther Herbig, BSO
Alon Goldstein (Meagan Cignoli)

A Cole Porter line popped into my head throughout Friday night's deeply fulfilling Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert: "How strange the change from major to minor."

Harmonic shifts, both subtle and startling, provide a key structural and emotional ingredient in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, as well as Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 in C minor.

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Music theorists can spend days analyzing these scores, detailing the myriad ways their composers find new paths that toy with our expectations and lead us on fresh adventures.

But there is no need to master the rules of harmony to sense how brilliantly crafted these works are, and to experience the way they communicate as much to the heart as to the ears, with every one of those changes from major to minor, or back again, creating a compelling effect.

The veteran German-born conductor Gunther Herbig, one of the BSO's favorites, is at the helm for this program. He invariably offers clarity of technique and abundance of expressive nuance, as he did on Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the concert will be repeated Sunday afternoon (Saturday evening at Strathmore).

For the Mozart concerto, Herbig had a sympathetic colleague in rising pianist Alon Goldstein, a gifted graduate of the Peabody Institute, where he studied with the eminent Leon Fleisher.

Goldstein brought a wonderfully silken touch to the music, but did not settle for surface beauty. His phrasing was alive with poetic intent and, with finely judged dynamic shading, he made much of each bittersweet harmonic turn in the score.

Elegantly guided by Herbig, the pianist and a supple, chamber-sized contingent of BSO players achieved particular eloquence in the second movement (the one famously used in the 1967 Swedish film "Elvira Madigan").

Bruckner's symphonies remain a formidable obstacle for many listeners. It's not just the length -- the Eighth runs 80 minutes or more, depending on the tempos taken. It's also the composer's building-block method, the way he uses big groups of often intricately related themes, layer upon layer, until he reaches a peak, only to start the process over again.

The payoff comes from Bruckner's ability to sustain tension and make each step of the journey seem much more than a musical one. The great conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler described all of this as part of Bruckner's "destiny ... to attract, even to compel, the element of the divine into our human world." Nowhere is that destiny more manifest than in the Symphony No. 8.

The score has a tricky history. In 1890, Bruckner heavily revised the 1887 original; more versions were fashioned by others after his death. Herbig opts for a compromise.

Regardless of the edition used, a great performance of the Eighth Symphony creates a transcendent experience. Herbig and the BSO, beefed up with extra musicians (including several to play the distinctively mellow Wagner tubas Bruckner calls for), delivered that experience on Friday.

Conducting from memory, Herbig shaped the score with uncanny skill, ensuring that the big picture of each movement was as apparent as the tiny details underneath. His keen appreciation for the rich instrumental coloring in this symphony yielded consistent pleasure.

The haunting close of the first movement; the contrast of propulsion with lyrical grace in the Scherzo; the prayerful intensity of the half-hour Adagio (the principal theme contains an especially poignant case of a major-to-minor change) -- all were superbly realized here.

Bruckner's long, painstaking ascent to the ultimate harmonic resolution, the C major summit in the symphony's closing minutes, is equivalent to how those two climbers made it up Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The process produced a truly exultant rush here.

Herbig's inspired leadership ignited the orchestra. The playing, across the board, was not just impressive in terms of tonal warmth and technical cohesion. Everyone onstage seemed as determined as Bruckner to tap into that "element of the divine." It sounded to me like they made it.

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