Haitink and the LSO’s Bruckner Lacks Auratic Glow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bruckner: Sally Matthews (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo – soprano), Eric Cutler (tenor), Alessandro Spina (bass), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra /  Bernard Haitink (conductor) Chorus, Barbican Hall, London, 28.5.2017. (GD)

Bruckner – Te Deum; Symphony No.9 in D minor

After an impressive Mahler 9 from Haitink and the LSO last week (click here) my expectations were high. Haitink is an experienced exponent of Bruckner, and I have heard several Bruckner 9s from him, one with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, of which he was chief conductor for 27 years. And indeed, tonight he turned in a well-structured rendition with some very impressive moments. But right from the shattering fff unison D minor tuttiwith very loud timpani, I had the sense of Haitink imposing from without rather than coming from within the musical structure. And the following lyrical theme in A major did not flow as it should. The rest of the movement did not unfold in an inevitable way; there was little sense of a musical narrative adventure. The central climax intoning the great unison chorale theme with spiralling string figurations sounded merely loud with less than perfect balance in the brass section, not helped by the cavernous Barbican acoustic. The first movement coda, with its shifts from D minor to E flat had none of the sense of grim inevitability found in the Harnoncourt recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The second movement Scherzo lacked the essential sense of rhythmic power and menace, caught to perfection with conductors like Harnoncourt and Blomstedt. Everything seemed to be on the same level with very little sense of rhythmic/tonal contrast. The pounding timpani figure (not always in tune) obscured the clarity between woodwind and brass. The fantastically fleet major mode themes in the trio were well projected, making a thankful contrast to the brutality of the Scherzo, although the LSO strings were no match for the delicacy of the Vienna Philharmonic strings with Harnoncourt.

The opening of the great Adagio with its ascending chorale theme, chromatically straddling both major and minor, was well realised by Haitink with trumpets in the major ringing through. But after this promising opening I missed the sense of progression, so well realised by Furtwängler in an old radio broadcast from Berlin in 1944. Well into the range of intervals, in various tonal constellations, the initial A flat theme tended to drag. Like Parsifal, this is a paradigm of slow music subtended by a driving pulse never sounding ‘slow’. All this is extremely difficult for any conductor and orchestra. I simply did not hear Bruckner’s ‘solemn’ pulse.

The final great dissonant climax did not really emerge from the music’s inner structure, sounding too loud and strident. The concluding subtle declensions to the closing resolve of E major, one of the most sublime moments in the entire symphonic literature, was played in a fairly accurate way but in a rather perfunctory manner. The auratic glow was entirely lacking, the composer’s calm tranquillity, the sense of dying away – the ‘farewell to life’, simply failed to register as it should. I heard very little of the sustained pp so carefully crafted into the score.

The concert opened with Bruckner’s Te Deum. I am certainly glad that Haitink did not deploy the Te Deum as a substitute for last (fourth) movement of the Ninth. Bruckner, on his deathbed, is thought to have sanctioned this in the event of his death before completion, although there is no actual supporting evidence. The C major tonal constellation of the Te Deum is at odds with the D minor tonic of the symphony. And even to precede the symphony with the Te Deum doesn’t make much sense in terms of concert programming. As a better alternative American Bruckner scholar William Carragan has produced a very laudable performing version of the finale taken from the sketches Bruckner did leave. Of course, it could never replace what Bruckner would have given us had he lived, but the composer’s thematic sketches are fascinating, and very much within the tonal world of D minor.

The Te Deum was given a big and bold rendition. The London Symphony Chorus was solidly dependable. I didn’t always hear the Latin phrases clearly delineated when the choir was singing in tutti ff mode. But the dry acoustic of the Barbican is not particularly kind to choral music. This unique music really needs to be played/sung in a cathedral as Bruckner intended. – ideally the St Florian Basilica in Upper Austria where Bruckner is buried. Also I needed to hear more brass accompaniment especially in the more complex contrapuntal sections like the Aeterna fac cum. The final Domine, speravi was quite well managed, if a little loud at times, but the Non confundar theme rang out triumphantly. The vocal ensemble sang quite well especially the soprano and mezzo. Alessandro Spina’s resonant bass sometimes obscured the lyrical tenor of Eric Cutler. But again, as in the symphony, I had little sense of the Te Deum being traversed as a great ascending and resplendent statement of both faith and mastery of choral/orchestral form. Too often, as in the opening intonations of the Te Deum Laudamus, the phrasing and rhythmic structure sounded rather plodding, four-square and loud, but, as already alluded to, the loudness, even distortion. was more to do with the severe acoustical restrictions of the Barbican Hall.

Geoff Diggines

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