Great Bruckner’s Eighth in Lucerne with Nelsons and the Leipzigers

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival [3] – Bruckner: Gewandhausorchester Leipzig / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum (KKL) Luzern, Lucerne, 25.8.2019. (JR)

Andris Nelsons conducts the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
© Manuela Jans/Lucerne Festival

Bruckner – Symphony No.8 WAB 108 (Nowak Edition 1890)

My fellow reviewer Alan Sanders has just reviewed this concert from the Proms; I agree with his view of the performance and the orchestra.

In Lucerne we were thankfully spared a first half of organ pieces; in my view, Bruckner’s Eighth is such a colossus that it should stand alone. I think, marginally, I prefer it to the Seventh. The rapport between Nelsons and the Leipzigers was clear for all to see and the result was a finely-honed yet individual interpretation of a great work.

Nelsons took a slow view of tempi in several passages. I must admit I prefer my Bruckner bouncier, but seasoned Brucknerians were much taken by Nelsons’s approach. The slowish opening tempo certainly added to the mysteriousness of the work, but what suffered was a certain degree of forward propulsion. Nelsons had an unusual placing of the sections: double basses and celli to the left, behind the first violins; second violins and violas to the right; three angelic harps to the right (making them very audible). The opening of the Adagio was exceptionally slow: Bruckner asks for the movement to be played ‘feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend’. I felt the opening dragged, exceedingly lovely as admittedly it all was. Nelson’s view of the finale was, however, exemplary.

The orchestra’s fine band of principals were outstanding, the chief principal to laud being the extremely energetic concertmaster Sebastian Breuninger. The whole blended cello section shone, as did the firm and secure Wagner tubas. I do always feel sorry for the triangle and cymbals players who have to sit through the entire symphony for their very brief contribution to the climax in the third (slow) movement. It is however one of the best bits of the whole work, admittedly.

I attended an excellent pre-concert talk by Festival dramaturgist Susanne Stähr. She gave us the interesting history of the work in a half-hour nutshell, with musical quotations, and attempted to dissect the work to display its various themes. I have to say, interesting as it undoubtedly all was, I mentally put aside most of it and simply closed my eyes and wallowed in Bruckner’s glorious and almost spiritual music, his ‘cathedral sound’ as many have put it. There are certainly several musical references to death and to God (Bruckner finally meets his Maker?), as well as, perhaps – with some imagination – at the start of the final movement, a meeting between the Tsar and the Kaiser.

The Leipzigers were unfortunate to have to follow and therefore be compared to three superb and virtually perfect concerts by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. I am told the LFO enjoyed two weeks of concentrated rehearsals for their performances. The Leipzigers cannot have had much less as they are taking, or have taken, this symphony on tour – to Wiesbaden, the Proms, Salzburg, Cologne and Essen. There were some rough edges and split brass notes in performance and some notes which should not have been heard, even though the orchestra’s playing overall was of high quality.

Fancy ten days in Leipzig? I must mention a mouth-watering Mahler Festival in Leipzig in May 2021. In the space of roughly ten days (13-24 May) Nelsons and the Gewandhaus perform Mahler’s Second and Eighth symphonies, Rattle and the LSO Mahler’s Sixth, the Bavarians and Jansons Mahler’s Third, the Berliners with Petrenko Mahler’s Ninth, Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic Mahler’s Fourth, Pappano and the Dresdners Mahler’s Seventh, Harding and the Viennese Mahler’s First, Luisi and the Concertgebouw Mahler’s Fifth. There are other concerts and Thomas Hampson sings Mahler songs. Book early to avoid disappointment.

John Rhodes

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