United Kingdom Bruckner: London Philharmonic Orchestra / Lawrence Renes (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.11.2017. (Y-JH)
Bruckner – Symphony No.8 (vers. composite, ed. Haas)
In ascending the mountain that is Bruckner’s last completed symphony, modesty appears to be an unlikely weapon. Notable Brucknerian interpretations in the past have hence shown how less can be more, just as the Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes demonstrated with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, albeit with a slight reservation.
From the tutti of the first thematic group of the Allegro Moderato, it was apparent that Renes was not to impose upon the already monumental music a personal attitude of a protruding kind. In avoiding eccentricities in tempo, rubato or dynamics, the climaxes were moulded with natural élan. Such naturalism was met with an eye for balance – the meaty and clear-accented brass was palpable yet never without nobility, the flute (Juliette Bausor, notably) always ready to introduce a layer of elegance onto the stone walls of Bruckner’s cathedral of sound, and the various string sections sharp and immaculately defined.
Yet rarely lacking in this natural grandeur was a sense of subtle spontaneity. The drawn out strings prior to the third thematic group in the recapitulation of the first movement, for example, introduced an element of suspense and perhaps a tinge of melancholy, which worked surprisingly well. The Scherzo’s opening string tremolo had a rippling delicacy to it. The marginal expansion of the climax of the Adagio, too, was immaculate in effect. The supposed nickname of the symphony, ‘apocalyptic’ – although not from the composer himself – was an apt adjective in illustrating the conveyed force. Modesty is not tantamount to the total lack of interpretation, and if these deft manipulations of Renes count as interventions, there was nothing unnatural or self-conscious about them.
Lasting approximately 80 minutes it was a sober reading, still one could have hoped for a greater degree of loftiness or mystery – elements integral in the make-up of Bruckner’s late symphonies. While such was implied in the incredibly slow incipience of the Adagio – lead by the strikingly earthly sonority of the double bass – the intentions were soon replaced with clear-eyed forward momentum.
Furthermore, there was an impression of the waning of spontaneity in the very movement which represents the culmination of the long and back-heavy work. Thus the Finale, however alert and vibrant, lacked the oomph of the ‘modest’ imagination so present in the three preceding movements. It was a good performance overall, and no doubt one of the most notable Bruckner performances from the capital in recent times. However, had the orchestra used up all its fuel in erecting the preceding climaxes? Encountering the coda taken in strict time, the dawning thought was that Renes forwent the opportunity of what could have been a truly great occasion of a Bruckner symphony.