BOSTON will enjoy the gifts of three conductors of the first magnitude this year: Seiji Ozawa, Claudio Abaddo, and Leon Kirchner; and Kirchner is providentially accessible to Harvard audiences as the conductor of the Boston Philharmonia. This excellent chamber orchestra serves the salutary purposes of offering varied programs, significant modern works, and vital playing, three qualities egregiously absent from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which gives every indication of expiring into another seven months of unremittingly harsh and indifferent prosecutions of emulsified, vindictively pasteurized programs gleaming with lambent somnolence. Kirchner does not specialize in conducting twentieth century music, although he has performed Stravinsky stunningly, but responds with equal sensitivity to Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms. His programs of Bruckner, Varese, Handel, Stravinsky, and Beethoven exemplified this catholicism.
Anton Bruckner's Overture in G minor proved to be a beautiful small piece. Bruckner belongs to that unhappy group of composers including Liszt. Schmidt, Reger, Vaughan Williams, and even Schoenberg, whose music is fashionably vilified without benefit of humane audition. The tedious and lamentable caricature of Bruckner most often encountered is of an amateurish, even childishly naive, rural organist who afflicted the world with eleven appallingly identical symphonies which are massive, repetitious, incoherent and only convulsively appealing. If he is given any credit at all, which rarely happens since people prefer summary condemnation to critical acceptance of monumental genius, it is as an influence on Mabler and certain of the later expressionist composers. But Bruckner can be dismissed as easily, and with as much in telligence, as can Beethoven or Chartres Cathedral. This image of an uninspired symphonic rhetorician of beleaguered loquacity, "tortive and errant" as Shakespeare's Agamemnon, must yield to a clearer portrait of a consummately endowed symphonist firmly in the classical tradition.
Bruckner was a romantic in the sense that he self-consciously implicated his faith and questionings in a musical tissue, but his romanticism is not the sturm and drang neurasthenic exacerbation of doubt and guilt which the term unfortunately suggests. Romanticism began as a vindication of the joy of a liberating mystical communion with nature rather than as a debilitating confusion of introspection with self-pity, or a lamentation on the evanescence of all things cherishable. It was, hopefully, a deeper recognition of mutability and then transcendence over corruptibility. The excellent program notes' suggestion that "Bruckner exalts the same romanticism, through classical gestures, that Mahler dialectically challenges and puts to the test," is an illuminating insight harmed by misplaced emphasis, for Bruckner's romanticism, like that of all men, was sui generis, and in his particular case consisted primarily of unshakeable Roman Catholicism.
BRUCKNER found in his religious orthodoxy the same resonance of tradition and invitation to humanism, the same sustenance of spiritual and intellectual resolution, which he found in classical sonata form. His music proceeds with the deliberateness, comprehensiveness, mystical assurance, and formal clarity of the Mass. His symphonies are celebratory but never indulge in an easy rapture of tonal staleness or facile dramaturgy. Mahler learned much from Bruckner, primarily thematic linking of unprecedented subtlety among movements, the proliferation of material in the second thematic group, the immediate juxtaposition of radically differing elements (here Mahler extended Bruckner's simpler process of motto-lyrical oppositions to ironic commentary on all materials), and the greatest lesson of an enormously expanded sonata time-scale. But Mahler could never equal the cerulean and luminous chorale apotheoses of this Edward Gibbon of symphonists. The two men worshipped in different churches, one Gothic, the other a spectral proscenium emblazoned with existential inquiry.
Edgar Varese's Octandre (1924), one of the two modern works, did not compare favorably with Stravinsky's pivotal Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1959), with Harvard's Luise Vosgerchian as soloist. Octandre, for seven winds and contrabass, seemed individual but not highly original, consisting of some explorations of the percussive possibilities of wind articulation, propulsive rhythms, and generally uninteresting timbres. The piece seems much less provocative than the contemporary experiments of Hindemith, Bartok, Schoenberg, and Cowell. The Movements, however, a strictly twelve-tone piece, is characterized by pellucid, crystalline registration, pointillistic rhythmical control, and Stravinsky's unique unsentimental lvricism. This work linked Threni and Agon (1956), a supreme masterpiece, to the later Sermon, Narrative and a Prayer and The Flood, Movements makes clear once for all that serial composition is not necessarily a constricting system available to uninspired journeymen, but a pregnant and energizing compositional discipline in the hands of a master such as Schoenberg, Berg, or Stravinsky. Mrs. Vosgerchian played the piece idiomatically, sensitive to the tonal resource of each note, the logical impetus of every rhythm, the grace of Stravinsky's complete conception. The Philharmonia contributed its finest playing in this performance. The slight touch of coarseness in the upper violins which occasionally intruded last year has been eliminated. My only complaint is that the solo oboe persists in playing half a dynamic too loud. On the basis of this program the Philharmonia's forthcoming concerts will be awaited with more than ordinary pleasure, and on the basis of this superb Stravinsky reading Requiem Canticles (to be performed April 12), this composer's magnificent new masterpiece, will be anticipated with unbounded enthusiasm.