Vienna Phil, Thielemann Invoke Mighty Bruckner With Rewarding Eighth

Christian Thielemann led the Vienna Philharmonic in three concerts at Carnegie Hall in early March. (Photos by Jennifer Taylor)

NEW YORK — It’s not hard for a Bruckner symphony be an all-Bruckner concert. Some of his works can just take up the whole thing. On March 6, the Vienna Philharmonic returned to Carnegie Hall with the composer’s Eighth Symphony, completing a three-concert residency, broadcast live and led by Christian Thielemann. I heard the third of them — the symphony whose delayed New York premiere (about 20 years after it had been composed) was in Carnegie Hall.          

Thielemann, 63, has not only led the Vienna Philharmonic in the United States on numerous occasions. He also conducted the Eighth in October with the Chicago Symphony as well as less recently. He does it without score.  

Considering that the symphony lasts the better part of an hour and a half, it’s fair to say that Thielemann showed listeners how deeply he believes in what he’s doing and how well it works. Principal conductor of Staatskapelle Dresden and other Germanic organizations, Thielemann is a good shepherd for the Vienna Philharmonic, alert to the health of all its body parts.

A reminder here: Thielemann is not just making a guest appearance filling in for the music director, because the Vienna has no such permanent person and makes artistic decisions itself.   

“Thielemann is a good shepherd for the Vienna Philharmonic, alert to the health of all its body parts.”

Taken together, the repertoire of the weekend’s three concerts had a quality of oddball: Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht with Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie (monster with cowbells), and then Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 (music to chill to), and finally the Brucknerian behemoth, the composer’s personal favorite and last completed work in symphonic form.

The piece received a serious, beautiful, sturdy reading, with satisfying depth of sound. Jack Sullivan’s sensible program note wondered “why this composer was reviled, then ignored, for so long.” One suggestion is that the Eighth is not so much for younger people. Whoever doesn’t like this piece would need to accumulate more flesh where they sit, which today’s older listeners tend to have already done. They don’t need to fidget, and they surely didn’t on this occasion. Not at all.

There were virtually no mishaps. The haunted slow passages, roaming Wagner’s dark forests, show Bruckner’s worship of that composer, recalling the way Mahler’s giant symphonies showed his admiration for Bruckner, 36 years his senior.

Bruckner had a lot he wanted to say, and when he sat down to compose, he took as much time as he needed to say it. During his lifetime, though, his sweeping works were disparaged by many prominent critics (except for his church music), and he was socially, if not despised and rejected, definitely insulted and ignored well into the 20th century.

The loudest standing ovations at the end (except for the cellos, maybe) were for the Wagner tubas, played by the fifth through eighth horns, as Thielemann singled out each instrumental group to rise for a bow.

The Vienna Philharmonic is a frequent guest at Carnegie Hall.

One wouldn’t think it possible to follow the mighty Eighth with an encore, but there eventually came one anyway: a full-throated performance of Sphärenklänge by Josef Strauss, brother of Johann II. The title translates as “music of the spheres,” and coming after the Bruckner, this less familiar, heavy-footed waltz lightened the mood, but just the right amount.

So the Vienna Philharmonic’s three-concert stay concluded with another kind of Strauss, different in many ways from the piece on its first program and, like some of the weekend’s other choices, peculiar but winning.