Lucerne Festival (3): Concertgebouw and Harding Fail to Convince in Bruckner’s Tricky Fifth

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Lucerne Festival   Mozart, Bruckner    Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Kristian Bezuidenhout (piano), Daniel Harding (conductor) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne (KKL)  27.8.2015 (JR)

Mozart:          Piano Concerto No. 18 (K.456)
Bruckner:      Symphony No. 5

I had hoped that the Lucerne Festival and visiting orchestras might have turned their attention to Sibelius and Nielsen this year, the year of the 150th anniversary of their birth, but instead we are being treated to the usual surfeit of nowadays staple Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich – but I am not really complaining. Their symphonies are often selected to bring in the audiences and to show off the qualities of an orchestra. In the case however of Bruckner’s rather tricky Fifth symphony, orchestra management clearly feared a less than full house and threw in a Mozart piano concerto for safety.

Apart from the fact that both composers were Austrian and spent time in Vienna, there is no connection between Bruckner and Mozart; their music is diametrically opposed.

Mozart’s concerto K.456 is middle-period Mozart, so no trumpets and drums.  That can make the concerto seem under-powered, and that is exactly how it came across. The first movement, after an ever so slightly stormy opening, proceeds like chamber music with frequent interplay of instruments and a piano solo that is delicate. That suits Bezuidenhout’s playing style which is intimate: he is no tub thumper, happy in the baroque and classical eras. At various times in the concerto, I could – from my seat in the rear stalls – see his hands move, but perplexingly could not actually hear the piano!  The concerto was written for a blind pianist and is not particularly challenging technically.

The slow movement is more intimate still; Harding tried to breathe some life into the music but could not succeed. Only the effervescent Finale brought the music to life and sped to a cheery ending, but almost too late to save the day. The horns had a troubled time with frequent smudges; otherwise, the orchestra made little impact and Harding added little. The performance received polite applause. Bezuidenhout gave us a Bach encore (unusually, using a score) as a sop.

Bruckner’s Fifth symphony is not always approachable. Bruckner lovers (and I count myself as one of those) approach it with a slight degree of trepidation, non-Bruckner lovers or the musical incognoscenti are hardly ever won over by what it has to offer. The opening movement is incoherent and even crude in part; it takes quite a while for the movement to build dramatically. Apart from Thielemann (whose Sixth I look forward to hearing with the Dresden Staatskapelle in two weeks’ time), all the best Bruckner conductors I can think of are or have been older men – and my list is long. Harding’s task was to maintain the audience’s concentration throughout the symphony and display’s the work’s structure. I don’t feel he succeeded in either of those aims.

The concert was being broadcast live on Swiss radio. In the first movement audience and orchestra concentration was not aided by a microphone wire snapping, causing everyone to look up, anxiously, as microphones swayed.

In the introvert Adagio volume was kept low to accentuate the brass outbursts which came over as thrilling. The strings were burnished in tone in their long lyrical passages. Harding simply let the music unfold.

The performance improved as it went along. There was a spring in the step during the outer parts of the Scherzo and the Concertgebouw displayed a deft charm in the central Ländler section.

The final movement is certainly the most satisfactory and the most approachable. The onset of Bruckner’s mature period can be sensed. Harding kept control of the contrapuntal sections, rhythm never slackened, strings were robust and the final pages thrilled with their blazing brass chorales, evoking the organ, “the king of instruments” of which Bruckner was a master. Harding brought out a few passages I had not heard revealed before but the orchestra, surprisingly, no strangers to Bruckner, were a mite too untidy to make this a great performance.

Harding is virtually unknown to Swiss audiences and his somewhat restrained British gestures fail to give him much gravitas or charisma on the podium. He has a low profile in public. I got the feeling the orchestra was in limbo, perhaps now waiting for Daniele Gatti’s arrival as Principal Conductor in the 2016 season. Mariss Jansons has already taken the status of Conductor Emeritus. Harding will now become Principal Conductor at the Orchestre de Paris.

John Rhodes

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