Mark Gresham | 28 JAN 2024
Thursday evening’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continued the previous week’s celebration of Anton Bruckner’s 200th birth year, with his Symphony No. 7 comprising the lion’s share of the program, again led by music director Nathalie Stutzmann. But this time, it was not all-Bruckner and not without intermission. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E♭ major opened the show, featuring pianist Sunwook Kim as soloist.
But let’s begin not at the beginning, but with the birthyear celebration piece du jour:
Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 was composed between 1881 and 1883, premiered in 1884, and then revised in 1885, just two years before the composer began work on his incomplete Ninth Symphony that we heard last week with his Te Deum tagged on at the end as if a final movement.
The Seventh Symphony’s 1884 premiere by Arthur Nikisch and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was the seminal event that first brought Bruckner widespread fame. It arguably remains his best-known work.
Like the Ninth Symphony last week, the Seventh had been most recently performed by the ASO under the baton of Donald Runnicles, paired in that instance with J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D major. But that was in 2010, and in the interim, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, a German conductor, scholar, and Bruckner specialist, issued a new edition of the Seventh Symphony for the Anton Bruckner Urtext Gesamtausgabe in 2015, published by Alexander Hermann, Vienna.
In this week’s performances, the ASO used the newish Cohrs edition. Prior to that was a succession of three different editions, the first of which (Gutmann) included changes made after the 1884 premiere, primarily affecting tempo and orchestration. However, which of those changes were authorized by Bruckner is unknown; there is debate about how many were introduced into the score by Arthur Nikisch, Franz Schalk, and Ferdinand Löwe during the publication process. In the interim, two editions (one by Robert Haas and another by Leopold Nowak) have tried to retrieve Bruckner’s original conception. The 2015 Cohrs edition is the one currently deemed urtext.
That’s important to an orchestra because while Bruckner’s manuscripts contain few errors, the markings (dynamics, articulation, tempi) pose problems in performance—finding what works and what doesn’t in real-time.
I was not at that 2010 ASO performance of the Seventh Symphony led by Runnicles, so I can’t make comparisons between conductors as I did with the Ninth last week. But Stutrzmann’s take on the Seventh felt not much different from what we heard from her direction in the Ninth: with a focus on its massiveness and subjective drama (it is, after a declared tribute to Wagner, which shows in the music itself), we missed much of the music’s inner workings while instead being engulfed by the drama and oceanic swells and a certain feeling of blurry opaqueness that came with it, for the most part. A few unison passages were rather direct in their forceful bluntness.
The resulting feeling is that Stutzmann doesn’t really gasp Bruckner but fully believes she does; it seems to escape her. Exacerbating that is the fact that Bruckner’s music, in general, generates more divisive opinions among listeners than other composers of the era: some really love it, and some genuinely despise it. I came away from the concert finding that I like Bruckner a little less than I did before—or at least am more disinterested.
However, the real star of the program, pianist Sunwook Kim, appeared in the first half of the performance, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, playing on the relatively new Steinway grand that the ASO purchased late last spring. One ASO spokesperson ventured that this was likely only the second time a soloist had played the instrument in a subscription concert. Add the fact that this was Kim’s debut as a guest soloist with ASO, although he has performed this particular concerto with Stutzmann before. The orchestra, though edging on Beethovenish in their enthusiastic participation, was an effective collaborator.
Kim’s interpretation of Mozart drew attention with its joyful expressiveness and technical facility. His nimble fingers danced across the keys effortlessly, transforming Mozart’s great music into something extraordinary and leaving a lasting impression. He followed up with an encore focused on insight rather than fireworks: the “Adagio” from Mozart’s Sonata No. 4 in E♭ major, K.282—a nice cap to the first half of a concert that made the whole evening well worth attending. ■
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Nathalie Stutzmann: nathaliestutzmann.com
- Sunwook Kim: sunwookkim.com