Herbig Illuminates Inner Landscape Of Bruckner Ninth

A fastidious maestro who conducts from memory, former Toronto Symphony Orchestra music director Günther Herbig returned as a guest to extract telling details from Bruckner. (Photos © Jag Gundu)

TORONTO – Finding itself between music directors, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has called on Andrew Davis, who occupied the post from 1975 to 1988, to function in an interim capacity this season and next. Naturally, room has been left for guest conductors. On March 27 the orchestra welcomed back Günther Herbig, the no-nonsense German who succeeded Davis in 1989 but lasted only half a decade.

The program coupled two incomplete symphonies, Schubert’s “Unfinished” and Bruckner’s Ninth. Most of the beauties emerged in the latter. A fastidious maestro who conducts from memory, Herbig extracted telling details while maintaining lyrical forward motion. Rarely have I heard the downward step from piano to pianissimo in the second theme of the first movement so finely calibrated. Indeed, there were many instances when Herbig held up his left hand to keep sonorities orderly.

Herbig, enjoying a standing ovation with the TSO, was its music director from 1989 to 1994.

Not that this orchestra needs special attention. Pizzicato was impeccable in the Scherzo, a movement Herbig treated as a dance rather than a pre-Rite of Spring exercise in primitivism. Brass playing throughout was warm and focused. Wagner tubas coalesced nicely at the end of the Adagio. One could admire also the cool intensity of the strings in this prayerful movement – as it turned out, Bruckner’s farewell.

Climaxes were impressive. Horns at the end of the first movement rose to Olympian heights. A few sequences in the midst of this complex movement seemed analytical, as if we were seeing the great score rather than hearing it. Nothing felt rushed, but there were interludes that could have done with more late-romantic temporal largesse. My ideal Bruckner Nine takes more than an hour, not less.

Exacting and still fit at 87, Herbig made his first TSO appearance since 2012.

The Schubert, sadly, came across as a warm-up, unduly restrained and dotted with ensemble imprecision. Associate principals were on duty for this, as was a young guest in the concertmaster chair. Oddly, the exposition repeat in the first movement was not observed.

The turnout in Roy Thomson Hall was decent despite the absence of a star soloist. There was a respectful standing ovation for Herbig, a conductor who did much to improve playing standards in Toronto even if he turned out to be more of  a disciplinarian than the orchestra had bargained for.

Certainly he is, at 87, a credible spokesman for the health benefits of his profession, marching confidently to the podium, keeping arms upright, and doing without a stool as well as a score. Herbig’s last visit to the TSO was in February 2012. A return invitation in less than seven years is indicated.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.