Magisterial Bruckner from Haitink and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bruckner: London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 23.10.2014 (MB)

Symphony no.8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak)

This was by any standards an impressive performance, although it did not entirely fulfil my (perhaps unreasonable) expectations. Bernard Haitink is and remains a master Brucknerian, of course, but there were a very few occasions on which tension flagged slightly, although that may have been more a matter of the edition than the performance as such; the two are not straightforwardly disentangled. Moreover, there were perhaps a few more orchestral fallibilities, particularly falling off of phrases, than I might have expected from the LSO, even in so notoriously exhausting a work for the players as this. The congested acoustic of the Barbican certainly did not help either. Finally, I remain to be convinced that this edition of the symphony presents Bruckner to his greatest advantage, above all with respect to the cuts made. I am no fundamentalist about such matters, nor am I a Bruckner scholar, and in general, a great performance can salvage even the most corrupt of editions – think of Hans Knappertsbusch using Franz Schalk in Bruckner’s Fifth! – but I could not help but regret that Haitink had turned to Leopold Nowak from Robert Haas, however distinguished the company Haitink may have joined.

 Those reservations out of the way, I can now describe what remained, as I said, an impressive performance. The first movement opened and continued in admirably ‘direct’ fashion: facing ‘it’ in squarely, whatever ‘it’ may be. Those oases of not-quite-stasis, not unlike and yet certainly not identical to Mahler’s later examples, offered remarkable relative stillness. Haitink’s patience always paid off, not least in the build-up of apparently Wagnerian figures to distinctly un-Wagnerian ends. Apocalyptic grandeur arose out of the notes rather than being applied to it from without. The final subsiding was accomplished, like everything else, without exaggeration and all the more powerful for it.

The scherzo was alert: full of life, yet telling of death. Both Haitink and the LSO gave the sheer strangeness of Bruckner’s harmony, often overlooked, its full due. Again, that proper sense of the apocalyptic arose from the material. The trio brought with it no metaphysical relaxation, its relative leisure no less disturbing. Indeed, barely have I heard it so unsettling. Yet Haitink did not appear to ‘do’ anything with, let alone to, it; the effect, however much art this may conceal, was of permitting the music to speak ‘for itself’.

The Adgaio opened with a sadness too great for words: again, the work’s sadness, or so it seemed, not the sadness of a ‘mere’ performance. It progressed with a strength that pertained to both. Woodwind told of something different, of something perhaps celestial, something both necessary and yet increasingly difficult to attain; this was the orchestral section that impressed most greatly of all. There was something monastic, in a far fuller sense than the modern, ignorant caricature would have it, to those players’ contribution: a last gasp of the Austrian Baroque, one might say. Strings consoled as they could, but at what point did Bruckner take his leave, or threaten to do so, from his God, or vice versa? That remained an open question, for all the clichés one hears concerning such matters. Silence, without a hint of theatrical prolongation, played its role too, both dramatic and architectural. Towards the close, horns, despite occasional slips, offered the innocence of an earlier German Romanticism: infinitely touching.

The finale undoubtedly opened with defiance. Unstable progress – especially in this edition? – seemed to rely as much upon belief as anything else, though Haitink’s sense of the greater picture could hardly be doubted. One does not, of course, expect the motivic cohesion of Brahms in Bruckner; Bruckner’s very personal handling of form had its own story to tell, and, despite the cuts, did so for the most part admirably. Once again, though one could hear harmonic proximity to Wagner, one felt all the more keenly how important were Bruckner’s purpose and method.

Mark Berry

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