September 24, 2002

Bach, Boulez strange bedfellows; Bruckner's brassy 7th


Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Kunst der Fuge transcribed for orchestra by Ichiro Nodaira

Pierre Boulez
Dérive I
Memoriale ( explosante-fixe originel)
Improvisation I sur Mallarmé

Anton Bruckner
7th Symphony


Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Jesus Lopez Cobos - conductor
Ursula Oppens - piano

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Bach, Boulez strange bedfellows; Bruckner's brassy 7th

by Nancy Chapple

It's not often that both the first and second halves of a concert progress from tepid to really quite good. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, conducted by Kent Nagano, played a colorful program on Tuesday evening. In the first half, 6 pieces from J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge transcribed for orchestra by Ichiro Nodaira were interwoven with three short works by Pierre Boulez. After the intermission, the orchestra performed Bruckner's 7th Symphony.

In programming terms, inserting Boulez' Dérive I, Memoriale ( explosante-fixe originel) and Improvisation I sur Mallarmé among 5 Contrapuncti and 1 Canon did not work. There was no apparent link between the works, as it was not clear whether Boulez had truly wanted to comment musically on Bach's counterpoint. In fact, the Boulez works left very little impression whatsoever, despite the strong singing of Valdine Anderson in Memoriale. The 1st Contrapunctus began with poor ensemble playing, as the strings did not seem properly tuned to each other and the rhythm of the first entrances was not clear. The brushy bow strokes used in the 2nd Contrapunctus were also not convincing in terms of sound. Contrapunctus 5 was scored for winds, and was better in tune. The most delightfully imaginative instrumentation was in the Canon alla Ottava, where marimba, xylophone and glockenspiel play one of the voices, and strings the other. The whole sparkled brightly, a Christmas-y sound. The second voice, either pizzicato strings or percussion instruments, interspersed spots of color on the beats. Contrapunctus 14, which Bach left unfinished, worked best in this transcription. Unfortunately, the audience was restless each time the instrumentalists switched scores, and coughed an inordinate amount, both during and between the works.

The Bruckner 7th can be heavy going given the preponderance of brass, the emphasis on octaves and fifths, the repetition of phrases. Nagano's interpretation was not riveting, though certainly competent. For the first movement, Nagano created a warm and yet grainy string sound. However the brass transition to the second theme seemed brutal; in general, the brass played too loudly and the numerous sequences and repetitions did not grow organically from one to the next, as they ideally should. The sound and phrasing started to mesh in the second movement, despite the fact that the Wagner tubas and horns were initially out of tune. Still, the music rose to an impressively sculpted climax--it's a pity though that Nagano let the tension sag in the long-drawn coda. The Scherzo managed to remain stirring and very alive throughout, and in the Finale, the orchestra finally came into its own, with a particularly convincing dramatic dialogue between the various string sections as they tossed the principal theme back and forth between them.

(This review originally appeared at