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KUNTZSCH, BRUCKNER 8TH TRIUMPH AT LENGTH

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It was a long evening, but ultimately a triumphant one for Matthias Kuntzsch Friday at Abravanel Hall. And also for Anton Bruckner, whose monumental Symphony No. 8 the German-born maestro chose to conduct on this, his second set of Utah Symphony classical subscription concerts.

Indeed, at close to an hour and a half, this is the longest of the Bruckner symphonies - though, had he lived to complete it, the Ninth would almost certainly have been longer.As it happens, the Ninth figured on Kuntzsch's last concerts here, in February 1995, and, even as it stands, still seems to me the greatest of the Bruckner symphonies. But with few exceptions this seemed the finer performance, being more unified and more highly polished - and that despite a few instances of inexact chording.

Friday one of those came at the very beginning. But as Kuntzsch led us from those ominous stirrings through the ebb and flow of what followed - here very well integrated in terms of rhythm and dramatic contrasts - it was impossible not to be struck by the music's power, especially the virile brass climaxes, beefed up by four Wagner tubas.

Against that came the affectingly highlighted woodwind solos and such things as the beautifully dying string triplets that conclude the first movement. After which came the nervous expectancy of the Scherzo - here taken fairly quickly - the Germanic heft of the outer sections framing the lyric longing of the trio, which here reached a noble apex.

The apex of the symphony as a whole, however, is the sublime Adagio, its long phrases and paragraphs communicating both sadness and a uniquely Brucknerian radiance. At least they did here, their heavenly blend of harp and strings giving way to a climax of thunder and exultancy, here grandly built. It was followed, moreover, by a finale of similar grandeur and strength, from the vibrant sounding of the "Cossack" rhythms at the beginning to Bruckner's ingenious melding of all four of the symphony's principal themes at the end.

Here especially it is easy for this music to sound fragmented. But not this time, as the musicians responded to Kuntzsch's direction with playing of remarkable force and commitment.

As they had earlier in the evening in the curtain-raiser, Schumann's "Manfred" Overture, not always dark enough in places but full of brilliance and surging romanticism, and remarkably clear in texture.

Which made for a "first half" shorter than the intermission that followed - or indeed any single movement of the Bruckner Eighth (here in the Leopold Nowak edition of the 1890 version). "I don't know if I can sit through this," murmured the woman to my right before the latter began. And she didn't. But those who did stayed to cheer, in a standing ovation that saw the orchestra likewise stamping its feet in approval.

All of which suggests that, however well the other candidates for the music directorship of the Utah Symphony do over the next two seasons, Kuntzsch's name will loom high on the players' list. And maybe for some in the audience as well.