Anton Bruckner divides audiences. For admirers, his sprawling, stately symphonies — with their great pauses and timeless repetitions — represent the summit of the 19th-century Viennese symphonic tradition. For skeptics, the symphonies are exercises in lumpy piety, plagued with bombastic sonorities and numbingly long-winded development sections.
Yet in a hyper-kinetic, overstimulated world, Bruckner's symphonies may not fit comfortably at either extreme. In recent years, some conductors and ensembles have sought to contextualize the Austrian composer in broader, semi-mystical terms. They've programmed him alongside contemporary minimalists like Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, or they've encouraged listeners to think of his writing as a kind of heavyweight version of Gregorian chant. The message: Bruckner is a composer who rewards patience and contemplation.
The Dresden Staatskapelle brings Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 to Carnegie Hall April 19 — webcast live on NPR Music and on WQXR, which is also broadcasting the concert. Listeners will hear an orchestra with plentcy of experience working through Bruckner's quirks and thrills. Founded in 1548 as an ensemble of trumpets and timpani, and considered one of the world's oldest orchestras, the Staatskapelle has recorded the stately Eighth Symphony many times over, most recently in 2009 under Christian Thielemann.
Thielemann became the Staatskapelle's principal conductor this year, and by many accounts it's a strong match. Both orchestra and maestro are steeped in 19th-century Germanic repertoire. The orchestra's previous chief conductors included Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. Richard Strauss also maintained a close association with the ensemble for some 60 years, both as a stand-alone orchestra and as part of the Sächsische Staatsoper, or Saxon State Opera.
In modern times, the Staatskapelle has risen to international prominence through recordings and tours led by Giuseppe Sinopoli, its chief conductor from 1992 until his sudden death in 2001. The past decade has seen greater turnover on the podium; conductors Bernard Haitink and Fabio Luisi each had brief and tumultuous tenures with the orchestra.
But unlike his predecessors, the Berlin-born Thielemann has spent the bulk of his career with the major German opera houses and orchestras, most recently with the Munich Philharmonic and the Bayreuth Festival (where he's chief musical advisor). While Thielemann's tenure in Dresden is just getting underway, music critics have been optimistic about the results. Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer called a recent performance of Bruckner's Eighth a "mesmerizing experience." L.A. Times classical music critic Mark Swed wrote that a "rapturous live performance of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony indicates that Dresden could be in for yet another golden age of German Romanticism."
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor
Christian Thielemann, conductor