PROM 74: Bach and Bruckner Make a Memorable Concert

United KingdomUnited KingdomProm 74 Bach, Bruckner: Klaus Sonnleitner (organ), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Lorin Maazel (conductor), Royal Albert Hall London, 6.9.2013 (GD)

J S Bach (arr. A Guilmant): Cantata ‘Wir denken dir, Gott, wir danken dir’ BWV 28 – Sinfonia
Chorale Prelude ‘Allein Gott in der Hoh’ sei Hhr, BWV662
Chorale Prelude ‘Komm, Gott Schopfer. heiliger Geist, BWV 667
Chorale Prelude ‘Vor deinum Thron tret’ ich hiermit BWV 668
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak)


Any conductor who has the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at his/her disposal has an enormous advantage. The Bruckner Eighth is one of the great Austro-German symphonic statements they have ‘in their blood’, to use a well worn cliché. When Pierre Boulez was invited to conduct Bruckner’s Eighth with the VPO in Bruckner’s own church (St Florian in Linz) in 1996, he responded: ‘From the very outset, I accepted that I would undoubtedly get more from the orchestra than they would get from me’. In fact it is probably no exaggeration to say that the VPO could give a fine rendition of the symphony without a conductor! Lorin Maazel has, I think, recorded the symphony twice – firstly a more direct, dramatic performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, then later a much more spacious, less dramatic performance ‘live’ with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, when he was their chief conductor.

Tonight Maazel tended towards a more spacious approach. The Great Adagio, which usually takes around 25 to 27 minutes took nearly 30 minutes. Maazel wisely took the opening movement at a steady but onward moving pace, exactly ‘Allegro moderato’.  The opening B flat minor was well articulated with the glorious sonority and richness of tone of the VPO’s brass and strings making their full effect. With the VPO this sonority is never underlined for its own sake but is always in harmony with the wider structure of the movement, indeed the whole symphony. The symphony has a crucially complex tonal structure which prepares the way, from B flat minor through to C major and G major to the massive mid-movement climax, where a dramatic C minor is heard for the first time, albeit underlined by the variants of C major and B flat major. I go into some detail here as this huge symphony can really be seen as a tonal journey or musical narrative where the home key of C minor is only reached in its stark apocalyptic power just before the coda of the symphony in the fourth movement.  Any conductor approaching this symphony must be aware of this complex tonal/harmonic structure. The whole symphony rises or falls around the realisation of this tonal constellation, based as it is  on a complex, almost awe-inspiring musical logic.

Maazel managed the ascent to the mid-movement climax quite well, although I would have welcomed more dramatic/rhythmic delineation. The VPO sound itself was overwhelming, but at times I had the impression that Maazel was content just to let them play in their inimitable way – which must be a great temptation. But when the VPO is heard in this music with the likes of Böhm, Karajan and the superbly attuned Boulez, we hear something far more trenchant and dramatic. Also, after the climax approaching the recapitulation Maazel slowed down considerably encouraging expressive vibrato from the strings, as though he wanted to linger over the sheer beauty of the string tone. The coda itself, with trumpets and horns projecting the rhythm of the first subject in an anguished C minor, and the magical transformation to F minor for the desolate and fragmented coda were all delivered with the utmost conviction and clarity.

In the second movement Scherzo Maazel deployed the correct tempo of Allegro moderato as in the first movement. I say “correct”as some conductors who take a faster tempo – in logical contrast to the preceding first movement and the following great adagio (like Carl Schuricht, also with the VPO, and Eduard van Beinum with that other great Bruckner orchestra, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam) can achieve a wonderfully exciting  sense of movement and flight.  But tonight the more measured tempo worked well, giving the music a kind of scenic, rocky grandeur. I didn’t always feel that Maazel gave the scherzo’s stamping rhythms, stops and re-starts their full dynamic thrust and weight. He started the A flat trio in a wonderfully flowing tempo which sounded just right. But then, later, with Alpine horns and harps, Maazel slowed down again, apparently, as in the first movement, to urge more expression, with heavy vibrato, in the strings.

The great adagio opening with pulsating chords in D flat major was superbly paced.  Although Maazel chose a very slow tempo it never dragged. Bruckner’s adagio tempo marking also adds ‘doch nicht schleppend’, ( but not dragging’),  and Maazel throughout was acutely aware of the composer’s instruction. From the opening phrases we were made more aware than usual of echoes of the underlying pulse from Act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan. The second subject with radiant horns introducing an expansive cello theme was articulated and played with the right measure of movement (Bruckner’s ‘Bewegt’) and glowing sonority, especially wonderful in the magical tone of the Vienna cello section.

When the final great E flat major climax came it was shattering in its tone of power and triumph. Perhaps Maazel could have made it more tellingly trenchant if he had not broadened out so much; there is no indication of this in Bruckner’s score! But it would be churlish to apply too much criticism here with such superb playing, especially in the percussion section. The subsiding coda, with its radiant horn cadenza flowed beautifully with such subtle  phrasing

and sense of line, the VPO violin section (wisely divided between firsts and seconds) proving that it can match, or out-shine any orchestra in terms of sustained pp, ppp playing.

The finale was mostly superb. The VPO playing the opening fanfare rhythms like no other orchestra.The gigantic tutti ostinato sequence before the development proper, in variants of C minor, with brass and timpani rhythms and accompanying counterpoint cross-rhythms in the strings was delivered with an elemental power and clarity I have rarely heard. When we arrived at the massive C minor chord preceding the coda as the tonal goal of this symphonic Odyssey Maazel fully realised its cardinal importance. It didn’t just sound loud, as in some performances, but as emerging from this long and complex symphonic traversal with the VPO brass blazing their splendour across the vast reaches of the Royal Albert Hall. The great C major peroration coda with its contrapuntal combination of the main themes from all four movements sounded noble and triumphant with never a hint here of a grandstand finale. The clarity achieved here with such complex orchestral textures was amazing, especially in a hall not noted for instrumental clarity. Again it was the VPO which shone out here, and despite some criticisms of Maazel’s conducting, this was a truly memorable Bruckner experience.

Maazel, rightly in my opinion, used the 1890 version of the symphony edited by Leopold Nowak. For a long time the Robert Haas version has been more generally preferred, even by Pierre Boulez. But I think there is something more elemental in the Nowak edition. Even conductors like Haitink who have always used the Haas edition are beginning to prefer the Nowak. Haas is known to recomposed some of the music, but with Nowak every note is by Bruckner. One example is from the great C minor ostinato sequence in the finale, already mentioned above. With Haas there is a quite un-Brucknerian solo violin tail-off at the end of the sequence. With Nowak, at the same point, the timpani rhythmic figure is left solo with a quite ‘modern’ sounding decrescendo. It is probably best to try both versions (there are others) for critical comparison.

The Prom audience were insistent on an encore, with much mass stamping of the floor. But Maazel, although fully appreciative of the ovation, indicated there would be no encore. I think he was right. What really can come after such a compelling Bruckner 8? Why break the afterglow, the aura of a symphonic master-work?

It was a good idea to begin the Prom with a selection of Bach’s organ works. In his time Bruckner was more generally known as an organist. And indeed he played a series of six recitals in the newly opened Royal Albert Hall in 1871.  And Bruckner’s music, its tone and texture, is often reminiscent of the organ. All the symphonies have organ – like sequences, particularly noticeable in the last movement of the Third Symphony, and the massive peroration coda of the Fifth Symphony. Klaus Sonnleitner gave a vividly colourful rendition of the Sinfonia from BWV 29 in its organ transcription, probably better known in its violin version in the Preludio from the Partita No. 3 for solo violin. Sonnleitner made the most of the Albert Hall organ, especially in the sustained long notes of BWV 662. BWV 667 is actually a Protestant version of the ancient hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’. With its contrasts of high jubilation and a sustained ‘cantus firmus’,the diversity, range and tone of the organ was well projected. BWV 668 might be known to some as a meditative completion of the unfinished ‘Art of Fugue’. Again the magnitude and range of the Albert Hall organ came into its own in the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543 – not one of the most frequently played of Bach’s organ works but full of ever inventive contrapuntal splendour and festive, chorale-like embellishments for this ‘King of Instruments’, as it used to be called.

As an encore Sonnleitner gave a suitably intimate reading of the haunting little Chorale Prelude ‘In dir ist Freude’ BWV 615, demonstrating that this massive organ can sound gentle and delicate.

Geoff Diggines