Stupendous Simone Comes to CBSO’s Rescue in Bruckner’s Eighth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bruckner: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Simone Young (conductor), Gateshead, 5.12.2012 (JL)

“Tuned In”: A presentation from Stephen Johnson with excerpts played live by the Orchestra
Bruckner: Symphony No.8 in C minor

A few days before this concert it was announced that Andris Nelsons, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, had withdrawn owing to a viral infection. The Orchestra was exceedingly fortunate to secure as a replacement Simone Young, head of the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmonic.

Most of those who bought tickets failed to turn up because of snow and icy conditions that had driven the city of Newcastle (of which Gateshead is an offshoot) into gridlock. Whether they made it or not, the news of Andris Nelsons’ indisposition might have been a disappointment for he was, I suspect, a big draw. “One of the world’s most sought after” is an oft heard epithet attached to him and among his achievements has been the restoring of the reputation of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra back to something like its glory days under Simon Rattle. There are those who whisper that he might even, one day, continue the career path of his predecessor and take over the Berlin Philharmonic.

All conductors have their own special qualities and Nelsons has developed a particular reputation for handling music of large structure. You do not get invited to Bayreuth to conduct Wagner without it. In orchestral music Bruckner symphonies offer an equivalent challenge to these mighty music dramas.

As it happens, Australian born Simone Young has a similar reputation, having conducted in some of the great opera houses, worked with Daniel Barenboim at Bayreuth, conducted a complete Ring Cycle (the first ever woman to do so) and recently recorded most of the Bruckner symphonies to much acclaim. Seven years ago she was the first woman to conduct “one of the world’s last bastions of male domination” – the Vienna Philharmonic – a mighty achievement indeed bearing in mind it was not long before that the Orchestra had reluctantly accepted female players in its ranks.

At not far short of an hour and a half, Bruckner’s Eighth requires a demanding attention span from conductor, players and audience. During its third slow movement of around half an hour, I have seen in the past some audience members succumb to slumber.

It helps if concentration can be maintained by following the musical narrative. For example, recognising that the final climax of the work includes a blazing C major affirmation of a combination of the melodic gropings of the symphony’s opening and themes from the other two movements would be just one way of discerning symmetry in the great musical edifice. This is where Stephen Johnson’s preliminary analysis came in useful. Sitting in front of the orchestra he pointed to elements of the musical narrative illustrated with live, full blown extracts directed by the conductor. It is a formula that has been well tried by him, and many UK music lovers will be familiar with it from broadcasts on the BBC Radio 3 channel.

He had to make some last minute adjustments to his talk for Simone Young had insisted on conducting Bruckner’s 1887 first version of the score whereas Nelsons would have delivered the final 1890 revision (in an edition by Robert Haas which does include some elements of the earlier score). There are other hybrid versions and which one to perform remains a controversial issue. In a nutshell, egged on by “friends”, Bruckner’s revisions produced a more heavily orchestrated score with more players but shorter in length and with many, sometimes small, structural changes. There are those who think the revised version represents an all-round improvement but others who are adamant that the composer’s first thoughts carry more power. Simone Young firmly belongs to the latter school of thought and that is what we heard – a privilege in the sense that it is far less performed than the revision edited by Haas. Stephen Johnson helped to unravel some of the intricacies of the thorny subject and at the same time managed to trawl through the four movements in a brisk half hour. The extracts were delivered on cue in what appeared a slick, well rehearsed operation, quite remarkable bearing in mind that the replacement conductor cannot have had much rehearsal time with the orchestra.

The performance began after an interval and from the start Simone Young was in total command, charting a way through Bruckner’s apocalyptic landscape with her own vision. What she achieved with the orchestra, above all, was the near miracle of powering the composer’s successive climaxes to maximum devastating impact without them ever sounding as overdone, passing moments. Throughout there was a feeling of forward progression, a vision of a journey towards a goal that gave the whole massive structure its sense of unity.

As Stephen Johnson pointed out, when we reach the final coda with its thematic combinations we should feel that is where we were always heading. Simone Young and the CBSO achieved that. It was a great performance.

The conditions were favourable. Here we had an established Brucknerian taking over from another who had prepared the orchestra. The players responded to every athletic demand of hers as if invisibly attached to the end of her stick. To deliver such an electrifying performance in a house of mostly empty seats was remarkable. The appreciation of those lucky enough to attend was clear from the prolonged cheering.

A second performance was due in Birmingham the following day.

John Leeman

For a second opinion, see Brucker’s Eighth