A triumphant weekend celebration of Bruckner in Gateshead

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Big Bruckner Weekend: The Glasshouse, Gateshead, 4-6.3.2024. (RM)


Symphony No.7 – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Domingo Hindoyan (conductor)

‘Great’ Mass No.3 in F minor – Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Hanna Hipp (mezzo-soprano), James Ley (tenor), Mark Stone (baritone), Durham University Choral Society, Royal Northern Sinfonia Chorus and Orchestra / Thomas Zehetmair (conductor)

Symphony No.8 (ed. Haas) – The Hallé / Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

String Quintet in F major – Maria Włoszczowska (violin), Haruno Sato (violin), Michael Gerrard (viola), Malcolm Crittern (viola), Gabriel Waite (cello)

Symphony No.9 – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Alpesh Chauhan (conductor)

I can imagine that the organisers of this Bruckner bonanza embarked on the project with some apprehension, as although Bruckner has long been established in concert programmes and festivals in Germany and Austria, he is less frequently encountered in British schedules and is not necessarily viewed as a draw – indeed, he is still seen by some as being of niche interest and perhaps also still a box office risk. Likewise, while I am a devoted Brucknerian, I momentarily debated internally whether I really wanted to leave the relatively benign climes of Norfolk and venture on a long drive to the ‘Frozen North’ – and believe me, it was! There was horizontal rain and sleet, howling gales and frigid temperatures and it was just to listen to some music. A perusal of the roster of performers over the weekend, however, convinced me that it was well worth the investment, especially as the ticket package for the five concerts was so reasonably priced – but nothing could have prepared me for the experience, which was simply the best live performances of all three of Bruckner’s last great symphonies that I have ever encountered; the weekend was a triumph and I hope it was as great a success financially as it was artistically, so that we may relish the prospect of future events at the Glasshouse of a similar nature.

Certainly, the concerts all looked like sell-outs; Brucknerians from all over the country had descended upon the hall, agog at the prospect of such an embarrass de richesses. A particularly welcome feature of every performance was the virtually silent concentration of the audiences, as compared with the constant, inconsiderate hacking which has become a feature of attendance in, for example, the Royal Festival Hall. Each performance was introduced by the amiable John Suchet in such a way as to guide novices, give old hands the chance to disagree with some of his more sweeping statements and whet the appetites of all.

The Glasshouse is a splendid venue: a now-famous curved glass and stainless-steel design by Foster and Partners, staffed by warm and welcoming personnel, offering reasonably priced refreshments and an excellent restaurant – but above all, the main concert space is acoustically first class, being modelled on the Musikverein. My seats and those of my companion were right at the front of the stalls; the first row had been left empty, as being seated in them would involve a degree of discomfort craning the neck to look up at the elevated stage. This afforded the opportunity of close observation of the conductor and strings; and while the brass, timpani et al were usually obscured from view, the sound was invariably magnificently clear and resonant.

The first concert of a programme stretching over three days was the Seventh Symphony, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under music director, Domingo Hindoyan, who, impressively, conducted from memory, without a score. It immediately became clear that he had a great orchestra at his disposal; particularly striking were the sonority of the lower strings and the mysterious, hieratic utterances of the Wagner tubas. Hindoyan’s steadiness of pulse was palpable but not doctrinaire; his pacing of tempi was flawless and in service of a broad, architectural overview, permitting him to build patiently to magnificent climaxes in both the first movement and the Adagio. An especially interesting interpretative touch was his sudden little diminuendo in the approach to each high-point in the first subject of the Scherzo, which Hindoyan later acknowledged as not being in the score but ‘just seemed right’ – and was indeed surely licensed by its effectiveness. He came across in the post-performance chat with Suchet as highly likeable and modest in the service of his art. A minor blip or two in the horns and some lagging in the entries and synchronisation of the brass apart, this was a virtually flawless performance.

Addicted to the symphonies though I am, the ‘Great’ Mass in F minor is not a piece I warm to, although I acknowledge the devotion to it of many a Brucknerite. I regret that the excellent soloists seem mostly just to punctuate the music and I find the block chords of the choral parts and the lack of key change boring; it modulates from F to A major a couple of times, as in the more exciting ‘Et resurrexit’, but is otherwise fairly monochrome. Nonetheless, the mastery of Thomas Zehetmair’s conducting, and the quality of soloists, choir and orchestra was abundantly evident and it was apparent that the addition of the Durham University Choral Society brough extra youthful vigour and volume to the chorus of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, although the orchestra’s viola section was less impressive than the of the RLPO.

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé in Bruckner’s Symphony No.8 © Bill Lam

Despite the Hallé’s long tradition of performing Bruckner, upon taking up his position as their Music Director in the Autumn of 2000, Sir Mark Elder declared, ‘You can be sure that one composer I won’t be conducting is Bruckner, because I don’t understand his symphonies. In fact, his music means nothing at all to me’ – yet here, nearly twenty-three years later, he chose Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony to be one of his last performances with them before relinquishing his role at the end of this season. In the post-performance interview he confessed to what was essentially a Damascene conversion following his 2005 performance of the Seventh symphony in St Paul’s Cathedral – whose acoustic, he wryly observed, ‘gave us the opportunity to hear it twice’. Nonetheless, he had conducted no other Bruckner before this fourth performance of the Eighth in a few days, which makes the perfection of what we were privileged to hear all the more remarkable. As he himself remarked, the acoustic of the hall and the expertise of his orchestra enabled him to ensure that every strand of each individual instrumental line was pellucid – the all-important harps and timpani, for example, were always audible – in a concert of extraordinary power and concentration. Sir Mark’s captaincy of what he humorously but accurately called Bruckner’s ‘ocean liner’ was riveting, his gestures economical but eloquent, his beat clear but subtle. There were too many felicities in his direction to enumerate, so just one example will suffice: he constantly varied the rhythm and graded the dynamics of the Scherzo without ever sounding fussy or affected. He had a fiery, expressive and inspirational young leader as first mate of the ‘ocean liner’ and a crew whose contentment at being aboard was signalled by the manner in which they constantly communicated with each other and smiled encouragement. This was an account to treasure.

The next morning, the start of the Quintet was at first beset by a few intonation problems in the first movement before the musicians seemed to settle and gel to produce a rich, moving and melancholy, account. Their soft playing was particularly affecting; the cellist produced the loveliest ‘messa di voce’ effect on the long, sustained notes towards the end of the beautiful Adagio.

The Ninth Symphony provided a fitting valediction to both the weekend and the composer, especially as no reconstructed fourth movement was involved; it concluded with the sublime Adagio. I was especially looking forward to hearing Alpesh Chauhan conduct, having so much enjoyed his debut recording on the Chandos label of Tchaikovsky orchestral works with this orchestra – and his performance was a revelation. Dancing off the podium, sweeping the air with beseeching gestures, requesting a pianissimo or an entry with a crook of his little finger, his conducting style was certainly histrionic, but no-one could object when the results were so exhilarating. His orchestra played like demons and I have never heard such phenomenal power and attack from an ensemble; by the end of the first movement I was already stunned and slack-jawed by the sheer noise and drama generated – and I could see that I was not alone in my reaction. The strings were playing on the edge of possibility, sometimes fraying horsehair, such was the ferocity of their upstrokes which lent their phrasing extra, savage bite, yet tremolos crept in almost imperceptibly and pizzicatos were impeccably co-ordinated; this was an account which was both brutally tough and meltingly Romantic in equal measure. Timpani were gratifyingly prominent and precise, the woodwind was exceptional, headed by crystalline flutes, the first violins, so often exposed, played with supreme confidence. The energy and commitment of this playing were of the kind you would hope to hear from one of the world’s top orchestras but the Adagio gave us even more: its intensity and incandescence were transcendent. The long silence which ensued after the last note spiralled into infinity was testament to the effect of the kind of performance the concertgoer always hopes to hear but rarely experiences.

Ralph Moore

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