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Music review: Maazel's brilliant Bruckner Eighth

January 22, 2010 |  2:30 pm

Maazel A little rain is not going to stop a Brucknerian. And when it comes to the master’s Eighth Symphony, flood means nothing to a pilgrim. But for those not in the thrall of Bruckner’s massive frozen architecture, any excuse to stay home is welcome.

On Thursday, when Lorin Maazel tackled Bruckner’s 84-minute symphony of symphonies, there were, as might be predicted, more empty seats than normal for a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Nothing else was on the program. The mighty Eighth stands alone.

But the crowd was still sizable and mildly cultish. The Eighth is not exactly rare, but it doesn’t come our way all that often.

For the symphonic purist, the Eighth, composed in the late 1880s and Bruckner’s last complete symphony, is not only the most magnificent of all symphonies, it is the end of the classical line. With his symphonic successor, Mahler, the symphony got grander still, but it no longer remained pure. The genre took on narrative meanings. It found new ways to present messy emotions and reflect the ego and the excesses of its creators and of its times.

As the symphony found new life in the 20th century, some thought it an unseemly, even decadent, turn of events. For Bruckner there had been only one Creator. The symphony, and the Eighth more than any other, was his ideal monument to the Divine.

The typical shorthand description of Bruckner is to point out that he captured the majesty and radiance of Wagner’s sound while staying true to Beethovenian structural ideals. He wrote Beethoven’s Ninth symphony over and over again.

Bruckner always began his symphonies in mystery, a quiet tremolo in the violins was his favored devise. In the Eighth, the cellos and basses underneath initiate liftoff with a broken, surging line that quickly coalesces into big, melodic building blocks. The cathedral in sound will go up before our eyes. The urgency in driving rhythms and tremendous outpourings of brass will make its importance unmistakable. Expansive lyrical sections will balloon into spacious arcs.

Dissertations have been written on the profoundly expressive Adagio, one of the greatest slow movements in the literature, and the Sublime. The Finale is an essay in surety, an unstoppable march to glory.

That doesn’t mean that inexplicable abstraction hasn’t frustrated commentators from Day One. The preposterous essay in the program of the first performance in Vienna in 1892 describes the Eighth as opening with Prometheus’ plight and ending with the Archangel Michael in gleaming armor and with swinging sword.

Maazel, no mystic he, has no truck in the fantastical. He is a conductor with a surgical skill and the kind of guy who plays mental chess, and he was firmly in control Thursday, unfazed by emotion or technical obstacles. He did not seem quite the magician he had been last week, when he sonically transformed the L.A. Philharmonic into a garishly virtuosic mirror image of his former band, the New York Philharmonic. But given L.A.’s long Bruckner tradition (from Klemperer in the ‘30s through Mehta, Giulini and Salonen), he still brought an unusual brilliance to the orchestra’s more typically burnished Bruckner tone.

For my taste (I’m in the camp that no flood is too deep when the Eighth is anywhere nearby), Maazel was a wee bit chilly and formal. Plus it took Maazel a frustrating part of the first movement to get the balances right.

But he offered more than enough compensation.  The playing was terrific, and you knew from the second those violins began buzzing that overall that this symphony was in super-capable, sure hands.

Maazel, of course, is also known for being finicky. He enjoys changing tempos precipitously as well as finessing minor details, as he did in Sibelius’ Second Symphony last week. But in Bruckner he appeared to act more out of caution than recklessness. He did now and then slow down extravagantly in preparation for a creamy new lyrical section, but that may have been merely a reaction to the musical barometric pressure.

The technique reminded me of the way obsessive baristas adjust their espresso machines to make sure the settings exactly match the meteorological conditions. Could it be that Maazel’s fussiness may actually be a scientific approach to interpretation? But Brucknerians should need no encouragement.

Swim if you must. It’s the Eighth. Played to the hilt.

-- Mark Swed 

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Maazel conducts Bruckner's Symphony No. 8: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday. $22.50 to $170. (323) 850-2000 or

Photo: Lorin Maazel conducting on Jan. 15, 2010, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times