A Very Satisfying Bruckner Ninth from Andris Nelsons and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bruckner: Paul Lewis (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 22.1.2017. (AS)

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat, K595

Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 in D minor (ed. Nowak)

Some years ago a programme containing Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, even when bolstered by the presence of a Mozart piano concerto, would have attracted a less than full audience. On this occasion the hall was pretty packed, as it often is for Bruckner’s symphonies these days: his music has made great strides in being accepted by London audiences in recent times. So much so that the common practice of using a Mozart concerto as bait might be abandoned rather more in future in favour of repertoire planning that is a little more enterprising.

Nelsons’ meticulously delicate handling of the concerto’s opening statement produced a neat but rather anonymous response on the part of Paul Lewis. Throughout the work he played with a kind of unruffled imperturbability. The sound he produced was indeed beautiful, his technique was perfect, but the emotional temperature of his playing was low, and one yearned for some kind of distinction of phrase or rhythmic lift to take it out of routine. Perhaps the inventive first movement can take such an approach, but the second and third movements – dare I say this in our current age of Mozart worship? – are both less than inspired, and need a pianist with imagination and ingenuity to bring them to life.

Nelsons performed the Bruckner symphony in the 1951 edition prepared by Leopold Nowak, which merely corrects a few misprints in Alfred Orel’s 1934 edition, which goes back as far as possible to the composer’s original version before it was “improved” by Ferdinand Löwe early on in its existence. (Erik Levi’s programme note deserves a word of praise for dealing with this and other issues surrounding the work with admirable balance and clarity.) Fortunately we heard just the three movements that were completed by the composer before his death, and were spared one or other of the fourth-movement completions that have been concocted by various hands, particularly in recent times. Each of these is thoroughly unsatisfactory owing to the fact that Bruckner’s sketches for the finale are insufficient for a faithful construction of the movement to be made. As most Brucknerians agree, the three extant movements form a satisfying entity.

Nelsons is clearly a devoted interpreter of Bruckner’s symphonies, as he has shown on previous occasions and demonstrated again on this occasion. On the one hand his pacing of movements as a whole is masterly, so that the musical argument is clearly maintained over the lengthy spans. His tempi always seem just right, he captures the emotional ebb and flow of the music brilliantly through telling pulse variations and he brings out details of the scoring with a clarity that brings to our attention just how individual and innovative it is. The Ninth Symphony gives wonderful scope to an insightful interpreter, for it shows the composer in his final and greatest creative phase. Nelsons realised this music in such a way that you thought, for the moment, at least, that this was the only way to play it.

Only two aspects of the performance disappointed. I have heard the mighty conclusion of the first movement played with more shattering force, climax piled onto climax until the music seems almost to burst. Nelsons didn’t quite achieve this effect. And while the Philharmonia, very experienced in Bruckner’s music, played pretty well for the most part, the expansive phrases in the final Adagio brought out flaws in some of the brass players’ ability to sustain long notes. Only some of the orchestra’s regular players in this section were listed as being present and that was a pity on this particularly demanding occasion. Overall, however, it was a most satisfying performance, and I hope Nelsons will be tempted back to conduct the Philharmonia on occasion despite his prestigious appointments as music director of both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Alan Sanders

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