BERLIN — The Vienna Philharmonic on May 2 made the first stop on an ambitious tour that extends to the bicentenary of Bruckner’s birth in 2024. The orchestra is performing a cycle of nine symphonies, each accompanied by a freshly commissioned work, in cathedrals across Europe under the baton of Christian Thielemann. Their appearance at the Berliner Dom took on unexpected relevance in the aftermath of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris (where a stop was planned for 2021), and the concert accordingly was given under the motto of “solidarity” in face of the damage.
An opening speech by the president of the Fondazione Pro Musica e Arte Sacra, which is sponsoring the cycle, had a sermonizing tone that may not be to the taste of every concertgoer. But there is no doubt that the project has the potential to illuminate Bruckner’s symphonies as works that embody both a musical language that was radical at the time and a deep-seated sense of faith. The pairing of his Second Symphony with Christian Mason’s Eternity in an Hour, premiered in Vienna on April 27, only underscored that there are no clear answers to existential questions in the current age, even if Bruckner’s monumental score ultimately dwarfed the approximately 16-minute work.
Eternity in an Hour, the second installment of the orchestra cycle Time and Eternity, explores Mason’s enduring interest in the notion, or non-existence, of time. The 34-year-old British composer combines melodic invention with extended techniques to create moments of pathos and clear dramatic tension. Yet one almost wishes that he narrowed down his ideas — some of which are repurposed from an opera-in-progress — and spun them out over a larger canvas.
The second movement, “Existential Interlude (1): It is what it is…’,” vacillates effectively between ethereal and stormy textures, with a short brass chorale followed by flute and celesta, which the score indicates should enter “like bird-song through dawn mist.” Woodwind fluttering found an effective echo in the cathedral, while the brass had a tendency to swim in the acoustic environment.
The final movement, “the omnipotent God,” features a short but sweeping melody that first appears in the winds and later as a variation in the strings. By contrast, in the final measures, a monumental gesture in the brass cedes suddenly to fleeting, scratching textures in the strings.
The work has an earnest, searching quality, but so rapid is the fluctuation between moods and color that it ultimately does not leave the listener satisfied (or was the Philharmonic also not entirely convinced?). On the other hand, it is worth recalling that Bruckner’s Second was deemed unplayable by the conductor Otto Dessoff in 1872. Bruckner conducted the Philharmonic himself at the premiere the following year.
As heard under Thielemann in the revised 1877 version, the music has its share of quick changes in temperament, particularly in the final movement, which is by turns wistful, fervent, melancholy, and dance-like. But Bruckner’s transitions never seem inorganic.
The echoes of the cathedral were a bit unfortunate for the flutes that rise from the mist at the onset of the opening movement, but the Philharmonic nevertheless expertly conveyed Bruckner’s spiritual struggle. The orchestra may be unrivaled for the gentle, singing quality it brings to broad melodies such as the opening theme of the Andante, and Thielemann — whose forte unabashedly lies in 19th-century Austro-Germanic repertoire — is a sound choice of partner.
The string pizzicati of the same movement were ideally in sync before a deep sense of melancholy entered, which was then offset by undulating figures in the strings and woodwinds. The pianissimo ending called to mind the last breath of a dying man. The third movement emerged like a Ride of the Valkyries through the skies, with particular warmth in the low strings.
But for all its intoxicating Wagnerian textures, the symphony ends with a clear affirmation of human faith, ascending from a brass chorale into a running string motive. It may sound clichéd, but in an age when places of worship are attacked by gunmen and cathedrals mysteriously break out into flames, Bruckner’s music remains a vital force.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.