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Bruckner's time

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 10:11 UK time, Friday, 29 January 2010

Bruckner time. Time for a rave....if I haven't used up my ration of superlatives writing about his ninth. His eighth. His best - some say. His biggest - certainly. And that's the trouble: Along with his seventh, it's so big that it rarely gets wheeled out. We last played it in '73 - so Chris, Heather, and me, the only ones left over from then, have hardly had a chance to get to know it. How long does it take to get to know a piece like this? What's the difference between hearing it a hundred times on your tranny, and hearing it once live in a wide acoustic? When he wrote it no-one could have dreamed of radios or CDs (except Edison, who was just inventing his phonograph) - so how many times was he expecting anyone to be able to hear it? How many times do you need to hear it before wonderment carries you away? Twenty....a hundred? It's an hour and twenty three minutes long - longer if the conductor gets carried away by wonderment. Given the effort Bruckner demands of his audience, how many will stay the course without hankering for something more immediate? If you had wandered into our concert on spec, not knowing anything about Bruckner, how would this vast composition strike you?

The key is the bit about the beautiful acoustic. We all know he was an organist, and he spent loads of time improvising in a monastery. Bruckner, like Bach, was paid to inspire us to contemplate the mysteries ('us' includes clods like me) - that was his job - to inspire us to pause, and direct our gaze out beyond the humdrum. He wasn't there just to entertain us. Imagine him, alone in a huge cathedral, after dark, with a lantern, fingers wandering idly over the keys. He could play a quiet chord, hold it, leave the sound to explore the side chapels, swirl around the vaults, and wait for it to find its way back to his gallery. Waiting patiently, he allows his sound to finish its conversation with the building. By gradually opening the stops he could build massive sounds, and so without any physical effort envelop himself in terrifying resonance - explore dark caves of dissonance. 'Without any physical effort'.....did you ever think......before electricity, when Bruckner wanted to spend a few hours meditating in sound, some poor soul, or several of them, had to pump the bellows, the huge lungs of these beasts. Well, that's what it feels like to be a string player playing his music! His compositions are described as cathedrals of sound. Did you ever wonder what it felt like to build one of these cathedrals - carrying masonry up to the highest galleries, knowing generations would pass before the job got finished? Would you be forgiven for failing to keep your eye on the vision of the finished edifice?

My last entry was about being struck by beauty, and the importance of natural un-amplified sound - sounds that entice us, rather than sounds that obliterate our sensitivity. Coincidentally, last week's New Scientist carried an article about profound emotions, starting the list with 'elevation'. There are some emotions that carry an obvious purpose - joy, anger, disgust etc - but there are others that are deep, that will affect what we do next, but don't initially seem to stem from some ancient survival instinct. We could argue about the what and why of those emotions....but not now. What about exaltation, which Rachmaninov searched vainly for in modern music? What about gravity, joy, ardour and apprehension.......when in our day to day life do we need that bunch? They're essential to a performance of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead, according to Geoffrey Norris comparing recordings on Record Review last Saturday - typical of a composition that takes players to the physical and emotional limits. Schubert's deeply melancholic Wanderer Fantasy haunts this symphony - Imogen Cooper, a great Schubert interpreter, talks about music's purpose in bringing out 'forgotten emotions'. Re-awakening our shared humanity? Anyway, let's agree that elevation is the one that gets you feeling all choked up, tears welling, and you're not sure why. It's one of the biggies, and it's precious? This is the one I'm on about. Others trigger action - this one arrests you. Maybe this is a key to listening to Bruckner's music. Stopping. There is a way of listening where you've already decided to wait - you won't interrupt, you'll pause even when the other person has finished, and you won't move on to the next idea. You can choose to sit patiently with Bruckner, waiting in the dark while his sounds run their course, uninterrupted. His thoughts stand beside each other like masonry, separated, not flowing into each other. He talks - you listen. He stops - you stop. The key is to actively suspend your instinct for rushing on to the next thing - to rest while the emotional resonance of the phrase runs its course, like those sounds in the cathedral.

The crucial chemical ingredient in this symphony, and much of Bruckner's music, is the tiny semitone - as also in Schubert's Wanderer. This tiny step, particularly from the first or the fifth note of the scale, has a yearning quality - it tears at normality, despairing of being free - it leads away to excruciating dissonances, and is pulled inexorably back. The first thing you hear is the lower strings (that's me) grabbing out at the G flat above the rock base of F. At the start of the long slow movement the violins join in on the fifth note, sustained, full of almost inexpressible feeling, seemingly not daring to move forwards, then they gently press on the semitone above - quickly releasing it. I gasp every time I hear this. The phrases build up, layer on layer, striving for freedom, then die back in a hauntingly beautiful series of chords, to the sound of harps.....like feathers floating in the air, left by angels flitting from sight lest you glimpse them. The huge brass group join together in hushed choruses. You have to be in the hall to experience what this feels like. The building resonates - your body resonates with it - I feel suspended.....elevated......in a place that I never want to leave. By now, you'll have got my drift. There are surpassing moments of breathtaking beauty in this symphony - moments of choking elevation. The symphony may be long, but I don't want it to finish. Hear our broadcast, catch it on iPlayer, and listen everyday for a week. I hope you don't have to wait another thirty seven years to hear a live performance.....well, I'll be up there with those angels by then.

I learnt a lesson about stonemasonry during that particular performance in '73, a lesson which has lasted me through. It's exhaustingly hard work to play this music. Page after page of tremolando (very fast repeated bowing on the same note). Page after page of striding patterns - keyboard shaped patterns that are knuckle-crunchingly ill-fitted to orchestral instruments. Seizure is setting in, but the gaffer gives you more masonry to carry up those flying buttresses.....there's still pages to go. (Around the walls of Leeds Town Hall, where we played last Saturday, is a series of Victorian hortatory panels - and written right in front of me: Labor omnia vincit, hard work conquers all.) So, in the midst of this frenetic action it has to be possible, even necessary, to be able to rest - I don't mean stop playing, but somehow to release the tension in your arms, and allow the spine to expand - and be able to keep going. I learnt that this is possible - in the midst of the frenzy, it is possible to centre yourself - maybe to catch sight of the finished edifice.

Is all this worth it? If you're on this website, you won't need convincing. The healing power and value of great music, of great art, is contained here - inspiring lines of meditation that resonate long after the echoes of the music have died away. Would I volunteer to labour all night pumping those massive organ lungs for Bruckner while he did his meditations in sound? You bet.

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