Mixed Audience Reaction to Segerstam’s Bruckner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Bruckner: BBC Singers / James O’Donnell (conductor),  Stephen Farr (organ),  BBC Symphony Orchestra / Leif Segerstam. Barbican Hall, London,  28.2.2015.   (GD)

Bach  Motet, Jesu ,meine Freude, BWV 22
Bruckner Motets: Locus iste; Os justi Christus factus est; Ave Maria
Symphony No. 8 in C minor


I found reviewing/assessing this concert quite difficult. Parts of the performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony were magnificent, but other parts were quite dreadful. The symphony has a crucially complex tonal/harmonic structure which prepares the way from B flat minor through to C major  and G minor, through to the massive mid first 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 symphonic statement can really be seen as a kind of tonal odyssey, a musical narrative where the home key of C minor is only reached in its stark apocalyptic power just before the beginning of the coda of the symphony’s fourth movement. Any conductor approaching this symphony must be aware of this complex tonal/harmonic structure. The symphony rises and falls around this tonal constellation, based as it is on a complex, almost awe-inspiring musical logic. Tonight it wasn’t so much that Segerstam failed to understand this. The problems arose when he allowed an already slow tempo to become  too slow for any sense of overall pulse crucial to the architecture of Bruckner’s music. Establishing a symphonic pulse – something Segerstam did quite well in the opening of the great Adagio – is not inextricably linked to tempo per se, but the choice of the right tempo which can vary from movement to movement, is important in providing the ‘interior space’ for the pulse and pace. Great Bruckner conductors like Klemperer and Rosbaud can contour a pulse which sounds spacious but in clock-time appears to be quite fast. In the terms of cardiology it’s a bit like the difference between heart-beat, and heart-rate. Later conductors like Gielen, Blomstedt, Harnoncourt, Wand and with amazing results Boulez (in the Eighth) have  ‘internalised’  these principles to generally excellent effect.

For an Allegro moderato Segerstam’s tempo for the first movement sounded more like an Adagio, but amazingly he seemed to make it hang together. The lead up to the big central climax, where we hear the angry C minor for the first time, was well gauged at this tempo,. As in Klemperer’s last performances and recording of the symphony, we hear the strange and striking counter point in the strings mostly from violins and violas . It was a pity that Segerstam did not deploy antiphonal violins here for maximum  clarity. When the climax actually erupted, the volume was almost painful; it almost descended into noise. The problem here and elsewhere at cardinal points was that Segerstam simply unleashed all the brass to play as loudly as possible. Yet Bruckner’s dynamics are far more subtle, requiring not so much the full force of the huge orchestra, but a sense of the musicians playing together, a sense of dialogue where no instrumental strand should obliterate the other. This was suberbly executed by the Vienna Philharmonic a couple of years ago at a BBC Prom when there was an incredible sense of power with instrumental clarity and  without ever sounding merely loud. It is interesting to note that Bruckner vary rarely asks for more than fff in tutti passages. All this was not helped by the cavernous Barbican acoustic.  The first movement coda, 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 unsettling clock figure coda were all delivered with impressive intensity and power.

The second movement Scherzo was hardly taken as an Allegro moderato – but Segerstam’s firm rhythms gave the movement a kind of ‘rocky grandeur’. It was actually similar to the way Klemperer used to conduct it, although Klemperer’s superior sense of inner detail was mostly lacking, and it was very much, as already implied, a performance of primary colours. But the stamping rhythms, stops, starts and re-starts were delivered with an impressive thrust and weight. Segerstam’s eyes were firmly on the ‘Langsam’ marking (slow) in the trio. And later with Alpine horns and harps he slowed down even more, actually missing all sense of Alpine freshness and charm. It really sounded like a separate movement detached from the Scherzo proper.

The great Adagio with pulsating chords in D flat major was initially well paced at a very slow tempo. We were made more aware than usual of the underlying pulse from Act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan. The BBC strings produced a very apt glow here, their bass register was suitably warm and sonorous. It was from the second subject with radiant horns introducing an expansive cello theme, where the music began to drag; it was totally at odds with Bruckner’s marking, ‘doch nicht schleppend’ (but not dragging), and later, as though to ram the point home to conductors, in the second subject’s progression, Bruckner adds, ‘Bewegt’ (with movement). Up to the great E flat major climax things just got slower and slower seriously compromising the above mentioned tonal/harmonic structure, with the initial pulse now hardly discernible.  Also, at this dragging tempo, instrumental ensemble became increasingly unsteady and uncoordinated.  The subsiding coda with its radiant horn cadenza lost all focus in a tempo which seemed to be getting even slower. It says a lot for the BBC orchestra that they just managed to stay together and produce the semblance of a musical line. The whole movement came in at nearly 35 minutes, approaching the time taken by the slowest of slow Bruckner conductors, Celibidache.

In the finale Segerstam’s eye was fixed on the ‘Nicht schnell’, (not fast) marking. The opening fanfare rhtythms  sounded elemental with powerful rhythmic punctuations, but again it all started to sound too loud, even grotesque. The gigantic tutti ostinato sequence before the development proper, in varying degrees of C minor with brass and timpani rhythms accompanied by cross-rhythm counterpoint in the strings was impressive. But much of the lead up to the main development section seemed to meander, to lose grip of itself at again an increasingly slow tempo. It made me think that Klemperer was probably right in his insistence that the movement was just overcomposed (he made enormous cuts in the last movement in performance and on record). But no, conductors like Boulez, Harnoncourt, Gielen and Wand have conducted highly cogent renditions of it. When it is thus conducted it constitutes one of the truly great symphonic statements – worthy to stand beside Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony.  When we arrived at the massive C minor tutti chord preceding the coda as the tonal goal of this symphonic odyssey it sounded powerful if loud, but I had little sense of it arriving, as if developed, from a long and complex symphonic traversal. This is odd because the Nowak edition, which Segerstam used, emphasises the  importance of this far more trenchantly than the Haas edition. The great peroration coda with its contrapuntal combination of all four movements sounded impressive but again too loud, too ‘in your face’ without much sense of instrumental balance and synergy. Something like this was surely what Tovey meant when he parodied Bruckner symphonies as ending with ‘Gotterdammerung‘ climaxes’, Although outside of parody Tovey still hung on to a sense of instrumental/ vocal balance in Bruckner and Wagner.   Performances which are careful in  terms of balance, dynamics and clarity like those from Boulez and Harnoncourt, actually sound much more powerful and overwhelming than  the Segerstam full-throttle, maximum decibel idiom.

I had not heard Segerstam in Bruckner before. A colleague assures me that he conducted a superb performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony a few years ago in London. When I heard that Segerstam was replacing Bychkov, I remembered what a marvellous Sibelius conductor Segerstam is, and I would have thought these credentials (in Sibelius alone) augured well for some fine Bruckner. And, as I think I have made clear, there were some fine things here, even elements of greatness! But in very basic terms it was let down by deviating too much from what Bruckner intended; and Bruckner, although occasionally unclear, is generally very clear in what he wanted, especially in terms of tempo and dynamics including the already mentioned complex tonal/harmonic architectonic of the whole monumental symphony. The lesson Segerstam should learn is one of believing in and delivering what Bruckner wanted. In terms of the history of Bruckner performance Segerstam is not alone. This tortuous history – not to mention the tortuous legacy of Bruckner editions – is full of conductors who thought they knew better than the composer, imposing the most grotesque distortions on his symphonies, some even virtually re-composing a whole symphony. The fact that Bruckner was complicit in some of these deviations doesn’t mean he necessarily approved of them; he almost certainly did not. But he would accept almost any emendations if it meant that his work was performed. Of course he should have been stronger, more  uncompromising, but this would have denoted a different character, and probably a different kind of music.

It was, I suppose, a controversial Bruckner rendition, and this echoed in the audience reception which ranged from almost ecstatic ovation. (the man next to me commented that London audiences are ‘easy to please’) to quite loud booing, more unusual in London audiences. But in some ways this polarity of audience response was in line with the dichotomies of Segerstam’s Bruckner rendition.

It was a good idea to begin the concert with some motets by Bruckner and the great motet ‘Jesu meine Freude‘ by J S Bach, which Bruckner undoubtedly knew.  The BBC Singers under James O’Donnell gave a good rendition of this masterpiece. Schoenberg revered Bach, especially the six motets, which he used for teaching purposes. He once said to Klemperer, who was a student of the composer  ,that these works were absolutely essential in understanding composition both as an art form, and in terms of compositional technique. Overall the BBC Singers sang the motet well, but  I would have welcomed more vocal contrast; for example the ‘Gute Nacht’, which tells of the soul’s departure from a degraded, materialistic world, was sung very well but it all sounded a tad bland. I heard none of the ‘mystery’ found in performances by Philippe Herreweghe and ‘La Chapelle Royale’ or Collegium Vocale Gent and Rene Jacobs or the RIAS Kammerchor, where the choral ‘sotto voce’ has a haunting quality. Also the sopranos at top level sounded rather strained, but I suspect this was partly due to the restricted Barbican acoustic. The three Bruckner Motets were also well sung, with an improved ‘sotto voce’, but his beautiful sacred music really needs to be played in a chapel, or Cathedral, like St Florian near Linz, where the composer is buried. They were written to be sung in this wonderful Baroque Cathedral where the acoustic corresponds to the many echoe/mirror effects of the music. This is a very special acoustic which relates to the music’s architecture and mysticism, understood perfectly by Bruckner conductor Eugen Jochum.

Geoff Diggines

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