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MUSIC REVIEW

Steady Hand on Sturdy Ground

November 16, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Anton Bruckner divides audiences. For admirers, his enormous, insistent symphonies--which strive for limitless spiritual awe with massive blocks of sounds--are the summit of the pure, 19th century Viennese symphonic tradition. For others, they are loud, pious and, thanks to Hitler's twisted appropriation of the abstract music, simply not to be stomached.

In fact, Bruckner is not nearly so black and white a composer as he is often portrayed. He was neither the country bumpkin, as his detractors would have it, nor the God-affirming goody-goody, as his fanatics believe. And, though he had his suicidal tendencies, he was hardly the nutty neurotic that Ken Russell made him into in the outrageous television film he made about Bruckner a couple of years back.

It even is possible to think of Bruckner as simply a sane and thorough traditional symphonist, if a particularly grand one, and that is the Bruckner that Zubin Mehta has long espoused and the one he espoused once more with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. A month and three days after the centennial of the composer's death, Mehta turned to the most exalted of Bruckner's nine symphonies, the Eighth, which, in Mehta's stately account lasted some 80 minutes.

The Eighth has long been a Mehta specialty. He first conducted it here in 1970, recorded with the Philharmonic (in a long out-of-print London release) and has brought it back several times since. He has also rerecorded it more recently with the Israel Philharmonic. It is a symphony that suits him extremely well, and it seemed to fit both him and the orchestra Thursday night like an old glove.

*

The Philharmonic is a true Bruckner orchestra, and Mehta had something to do with that through his tenure as its music director from 1962 to 1978. Mehta has always admired the Viennese sound, with its creamy strings, amber winds and golden, pealing brass--and that is the sound that Bruckner, an organist, tried to transfer to the orchestra. Mehta worked determinedly and successfully to achieve it. But he also was working with an orchestra grounded in Brucknerians--Klemperer in the '30s and, briefly, Van Beinum in the '50s (the tradition has continued with Giulini and Salonen).

But the orchestra did have a particular sound under Mehta, and it has it again when he returns. It is not as detailed a sound as it was under Salonen or, say, Boulez--the two conductors who get the best results here--but it is a beautiful and beautifully blended sound. Climaxes, really big ones that go on and on, were a Bruckner specialty and they have always been a Mehta specialty. But Bruckner could also achieve stunning, glassy quiet, and that is something Mehta has gotten much better at over the years. Some of the most impressive moments in this performance came when the orchestra seemed to consist of nothing more than a silvery thread of sound.

One never turns to Mehta for structural revelations; his interests seem to lie elsewhere, mainly in sound and drama, which is why he has lately become so celebrated in opera. In an odd way, however, that suits Bruckner, structurally abstract as his music is. The actual shape of the symphony is easily apprehended; it is the textures, the harmonies and the counterpoints that are so rich and complex.

Mehta pretty much lets them be. He does not always keep the momentum going nor does he try to squeeze too much emotion out of individual phrases. But he does give the music the room it needs to breathe. And Mehta--especially in the big, half-hour adagio movement that is the soul of the symphony--pumps its lungs very full of oxygen, bursting cathartically in the big climax at the end. He also knows just how to bring all the strands together in the dynamic finale in a way to keep any good Brucknerian glued to his seat.

Mehta's is an unworried approach, and for solid, old-fashioned, confident Bruckner, he has become a master. There were many who stayed home Thursday, but those who came to the Music Center were devout in their attentions and richly rewarded.

* Zubin Mehta again conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Bruckner's Eighth Symphony tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $8-$60. (213) 365-3500.

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