Purity and power: Bruckner from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bruckner: Awadagin Pratt (piano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor). The Lighthouse, Poole, 13.3.2024. (CK)

Pianist Awadagin Pratt rehearsing with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, K488
Bruckner – Symphony No.5

It was good to see Kirill Karabits in his fifteenth and final season at the helm of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. They have long been a great partnership; and the same can be said for the music of Mozart and Bruckner, paired often and successfully in concerts such as this.

Coming on with his dreadlocks and his coat of many colours, African-American pianist Awadagin Pratt imparted a measure of K488’s relaxed, joyful high spirits before playing a note of it.  There was much to enjoy in his playing – his running scales a particular delight – but there was also a want of delicacy and lightness of touch: it was hard to know whether this was attributable to the piano, the acoustic or the pianist. The acoustic sounded rather boomy for a small band; Pratt’s playing sometimes seemed rather unvarying in phrasing and dynamics. He showed a lovely, ruminative touch in the unaccompanied opening of the Adagio, and the finale went with an irresistible swing: the joyously bubbling bassoon caught the ear and made me regret that the woodwind – who have such lovely work in this, as in all the Mozart concertos – were hidden behind the piano. As Andrew Burn commented in his excellent online pre-concert talk, those lucky enough to have heard Mozart play in the first performance must have gone home buzzing. Despite some heaviness of (left) hand in Pratt’s playing it was a performance to enjoy, but also to reinforce the case for performing the work on a fortepiano.

His encore – delightful, confined to the lower half of the piano’s range, and in Pratt’s hands leaning towards mush rather than scintillation – had me foxed: my Bruckner-loving friend Tim reckoned it was Bach, but he informed me this morning that it was Les Baricades Mistérieuses from the Sixième Ordre of François Couperin’s Second Book of Pièces de clavecin. Sounds wonderful on a harpsichord, Tim says. For someone like me with a sketchy knowledge of French Baroque (that’s putting it politely) he is a handy friend to have.

Bruckner’s Fifth was a brave choice. It lacks the burnished glow, the Romantic glamour and the melodic attractiveness of the Fourth and Seventh, the visionary grandeur of the Eighth and Ninth: beside them, its musical fabric sounds rather gaunt, angular, even (at times) threadbare. Nevertheless, this is Bruckner’s goal-directed symphony par excellence: it requires patience, the going is sometimes thorny and stony, but it culminates in an awe-inspiring finale which is both logically satisfying and physically overwhelming. Karabits’s long stillness before the first movement, and again before the finale, clearly signalled the magnitude of the task ahead of him and the orchestra; and it gave us, the audience, the opportunity to breathe more deeply, to adjust ourselves to Bruckner-time. My notebook and pen, intermittently busy during the Mozart, lay undisturbed on my lap for the full seventy-five minutes.

Karabits conducted the symphony with passion and conviction, hewing out those colossal blocks of sound without hurry and without stint: the orchestra responded with playing of unflashy purity and power. Despite its massiveness Bruckner’s music is often flecked with telling detail: the flutes walking gently above the return of the first movement’s introduction (their quavers ‘droplets like falling tears’, as Burn put it); the lonely oboe that wanders in a wasteland at the opening of the slow movement; the cheeky clarinet that gatecrashes the hushed and solemn opening of the finale with a preview of the main theme. The ear was drawn time and again by unobtrusive phrases quietly touched in by principal horn and trumpet. The big moments – the sonorous warmth of the slow movement’s second subject, the engaging Ländler in the Scherzo, the sudden bloom of the chorale in the finale – sounded wonderful whilst remaining fully integrated in the music’s progress.

‘Integrated’ is perhaps the wrong word. A Bruckner symphony in which the first three movements – around 50 minutes’ playing time – cannot entirely shake off their tentative, fragmented, dislocated character is never going to be as popular as those that charm the listener from their magical opening tremolo. Though there are stretches of the mighty double fugue that can sound academic rather than inspired, the finale’s the thing: from the expectant recollections of the earlier movements (as in Beethoven’s Ninth – reculer pour mieux sauter) to the tremendous return of the first movement’s first subject we are swept along on the tide of Bruckner’s invention. Overwhelmed as I was, part of my mind reached out in sympathy to the players – the brass fortissimos ringing on and on, the strings at full stretch, like so many galley slaves (as one critic put it): they must have been utterly exhausted by the end. And what an end!

It was not until the Seventh Symphony that Bruckner began doubling the horns (the extra quartet doubling on Wagner tubas). I wish he had doubled them in the Fifth: he writes wonderfully for the horns in the finale, and there are places where they need to be heard above the wall of sound from the trumpets, trombones and tuba. Bruckner’s well-meaning friend Franz Schalk has earned posterity’s opprobrium for throwing in an extra brass band at the symphony’s end (though I believe Herbert von Karajan did something of the sort when he performed the work in London); without going so far over the top, Bernard Haitink  (with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Royal Festival Hall) and Günter Wand (in a televised Prom with the BBC Symphony Orchestra) both added a pair of horns to the number prescribed in the score, to good effect (Haitink, equally successfully, added a second timpanist). To hear how the horns should sound I recommend listening to Jascha Horenstein’s 1971 BBC Prom performance, available on BBC Legends, a performance I was fortunate to attend.

I had wondered how Bruckner would sound in The Lighthouse: it was a pleasant surprise to hear how well the hall coped with it (and how well, perhaps, the orchestra tempered their playing to the acoustic). Bruckner’s music doesn’t always work well on London’s Southbank, but it certainly works in Poole.

Chris Kettle

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