A Great Bruckner 5 from Andris Nelsons and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bruckner: Philharmonia Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London. 19.1.2017. (GD)

Bruckner,  Symphony No 5 in B-flat major

Although in Bruckner’s lifetime, his Fifth Symphony was subjected to all manner of cuts and emendations, mostly by the conductor Franz Schalk, it has survived almost as Bruckner wrote it in the 1951 edition published by Leopold Nowak. Unfortunately, Bruckner only ever heard a revised edition of his original in a two-piano version, being too ill to attend the premiere in Graz in April 1894.

It is arguable that the Fifth is Bruckner’s most classically formed and symmetrical symphony in terms of tonal/harmonic structure and the brilliant thematic linking from movement to movement. The final noble peroration incorporates all the previous themes in the form of a massive B flat major chorale.

Not long ago I heard a performance of Bruckner’s Eighth with the Philharmonia and Nelsons. I was not impressed. There seemed to be little dialogue, rapport between orchestra and conductor, moreover Nelsons seemed to have little idea of the structure, contour of this monumental symphony. But tonight was a totally different story. I have not recently heard the Philharmonia in such fine form in all sections, and there was a total rapport between conductor and orchestra. Also, and this is important, there was none of the rostrum antics I experienced in that earlier Bruckner rendition. Overall Nelsons’ conducting style, his conducting gesture, is not the most elegant or economic, but tonight all movements, stick technique, was in the service of the music, with no histrionics. Like with many of the past master conductors Nelsons used the baton to cue in (articulate) transitions and dynamic contrasts, and the left hand to phrase and modify melodic/harmonic shifts and sequences.

One basic reason why this performance was so memorable was to do with Nelsons’ understanding of the tempo relationships in Bruckner. If one takes the trouble to study what is left of Bruckner’s notes and original autograph scores (as all conductors worthy of their profession should do) one will constantly find markings such as ‘Bewegt’ (with movement), and ‘doch nicht schleppend’ (‘not dragging’). Nelsons understands, as many others do not, that after the opening ‘Adagio’, Bruckner asks for an ‘Allegro’ , here Nelsons tempi were hardly Allegro, more ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ similar to the later Klemperer’s steady tempo. But, as with Klemperer, Nelsons maintained a trenchant underlying pulse/movement in keeping with Bruckner’s latitude in matters of tempo formation.  Although Bruckner marks the second movement ‘Adagio: ‘Sehr langsam’ (‘Very slow’) the perceptive conductor (like Nelsons tonight) can see that the harmonic/tonal layout of the movement demands an ‘Adagio’ with an underlying pulse, with movement. And Nelsons understands the importance of this in the movements thematic linkage to the ‘Molto vivace’ third movement which has the same home key and rhythmic pattern as the ‘Adagio,’ D minor  Each movement has an overall inter-connectivity with the whole symphony and Nelson’s masterfully fused the D minor, D major syncopations in the first movement’s development section – juxtaposing ‘block’ motives in the form of brass chorales with new harmonies in complex cross- rhythms between brass/woodwind and wild string figurations – to the blazing D major/B flat major first movement coda.

As already noted, Nelsons never let the ‘Adagio’ drag or sag, thus sustaining a wonderful pulse and arch of sound leading  quite inevitably to the concluding chorales, alternating between ‘fortissimo’ and ‘pianissimo’ in quite remote tonal clusters, making the pianissimo coda and resolution in D major all the more moving. The beautiful lilting theme in violas and celli from the Lacrymosa of Mozart’s great unfinished Requiem, the movement becoming a kind of Requiem to Mozart were subtly and clearly intoned.

The D minor Scherzo is Bruckner’s most elaborated statement in this form. Like no other Bruckner Scherzo (actually rarely a joke in Bruckner) is there such tonal/thematic correspondence between the extended development section and the trio proper, which takes its Ländler-like sway in 2/4 time from the suggested Ländler rhythms of the preceding section. Nelsons and the orchestra articulated all this with the utmost precision and perception, his immaculate attention to dynamic shifts and contrasts brought out the underlying dark, even gnomic, tone of the movement, a tone arising from Bruckner’s complex juxtaposition of the movement’s D minor/B flat major structure. In this performance the ‘Walpurgis Nacht’ was never far off.

I said that Bruckner’s scherzo didn’t really exude much in the way of ‘joke’ material. But in the opening of the huge last movement (which takes its cue from Beethoven’s Ninth in restating the preceding first two movements’ main themes) Nelsons really pointed the ‘keck’ (cheeky) clarinet answers to each intonement of past themes – sounding a bit like something out of Till Eulenspiegel. The main ‘Allegro moderato’ thrust of this movement is Bruckner’s great and masterful exercise in counterpoint. Here every fugal entry, every chorale interpolation came over with the greatest resonance and clarity. By the end of the vast development section, which concludes (only partially) in a great baroque sounding ascending theme and variation in brass/woodwind/string canon from D minor to D major/B flat major, I was astonished that I could hear so much woodwind and string detail, usually obscured in the great  onrush of  tutti orchestral sound. Although Nelsons meticulously observed the movements wide range of dynamic registers from pp to fff, he wisely held in reserve the unleashing of full orchestral tone and weight for the concluding brass chorale peroration with every strand of the work’s main themes integrated therein. All perfectly delineated and audible (especially the flutes) sounding as noble and powerful as the composer intended, but never merely loud or strident. Nelsons used the Nowak edition which restores some minor cuts made by Schalk in the last two movements.

Apart from some minor glitches from horns and woodwind my only quibble was the non-antiphonal violin placing  that Nelsons favoured, particularly important in terms of contrapuntal finesse here,  but this sounds a little churlish given the general excellence experienced. A great Bruckner !

I must mention the pre-concert event, part of the Philharmonia’s free ‘Music of Today’ series. This consisted of two compositions by the young Austrian composer, Bernd Richard Deutsch (corresponding to the ‘Austrian’ theme of the evening).  Both pieces for extended instrumental chamber-like groups (with virtuoso writing for particularly for percussion and brass) have evocative titles; ‘Mad Dog’ and ‘Red Alert’ (from Dr Futurity) a creation of science fiction writer Philip K Dick. As Deutsch explained before the performances, these pieces are full of ‘madcap humour’, over-the-top virtuosity, and bizarre irony. Deutsch mentioned the influence of especially Alban Berg and Webern. He also mentioned his love of Bruckner. All members of the Philharmonia ensemble (conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz) were in excellent form, and this music is in no way ‘easy’, full of complex ostinato/rhythmic constellations; sometimes on the edge of ‘atonality’, sometimes confronting, taking on atonality and serial forms. A marvellous ‘post-modern’ prelude to Bruckner, a composer who, for Theodor W Adorno, both looks back and forward into the legacies of Western musical history.

Geoff Diggines

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