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Jansons solves ‘Mystery’ with Haydn work

Mark Kanny

Mariss Jansons displays an extra level of creativity at Heinz Hall this weekend, finding a good solution to a peculiar challenge.

The featured work is Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, a spiritual odyssey that lasts well more than an hour. Like Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony and a few others, Bruckner’s Eighth is seen all over the world as a stand-alone work — to which any additional music would be superfluous as well as needlessly tiring for the performers.

Jansons was asked by marketing-minded people to offer a “Mystery Piece” before the Bruckner Eighth. Sadly, it didn’t help. Only 1,242 tickets were sold for Thursday night’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performance, less than 50 percent of capapcity — but then, the second week of the season is traditionally weak for attendance.

The music director’s response to the request was inspired. He offered two movements from Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” that not only set the spiritual tone for the evening but also did so with music that Bruckner heard as a child and loved. And musically, Haydn’s opening theme is forcefully angular, craggy in a way similar to some of Bruckner’s ideas.

There was no intermission before the Bruckner, which was expressive in focus right from the start. The composer’s language is a unique mix of romantic-era atmosphere and richly elaborate harmony and counterpoint. He adored Richard Wagner’s music, dedicating his Third Symphony to the revolutionary opera composer, but wrote only symphonies, sacred music and a few pieces of chamber music.

Jansons’ pacing was flexible. His approach was broader than in last season’s Bruckner Seventh, but the conductor didn’t lose sight of urgency. Jansons was often sensitive to voicing, drawing wonderfully rich music making in the second movement’s Trio and elsewhere encouraging brass counter themes to emerge.

The slow movement is the heart of the composition, a fervent expression of suffering, doubt, partial understanding and transcendence. Jansons shaped it with affection and power.

The performance by the orchestra was heroic but uneven. The strings were most consistently satisfying, although their pitch rose a lot in the slow movement. The oboes and clarinets were the best of the winds, with the flutes disappointing.

Bruckner calls for a large brass section. The French horns and Wagner tuben were excellent, especially the horn solos, and the trombones and tuba were also in the main mightily effective. The trumpets were oddly ill focused.

The major disappointment came at the end, when the Symphony concluded in a mass of harmony from which Bruckner’s counterpoint did not emerge — probably because of fatigue. The problem with properly projecting the end of Bruckner’s Eighth is inherent, like running or biking an uphill course that’s steepest at the end.

When Bruckner’s conception is achieved, as Austrian conductor Karl Bohm did with the New York Philharmonic, it an unforgettable experience: like seeing a range of mountains from one of its peaks. Of course, Bruckner’s Eighth was the only piece on Bohm’s program. Bruckner’s mysteries are quite sufficient: both exhausting and enthralling on their own.

This Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. today at Heinz Hall. Details: (412) 392-4900.


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