ENDNOTES, 3rd September 2015
Bruckner’s radiant vision at the Proms
September’s arrival is a poignant moment in any Proms season. It means that there is not long to go before the Last Night, and that promenaders must savour the remaining precious 12 or so concerts. The summer atmosphere of July and August has given way to the slanting light and early evening cool of the beginnings of Autumn. Somehow, the music of the Austrian, Anton Bruckner (choirboy, church organist, and eventually, Old Master – possibly, successor to Beethoven) belongs to this pivotal point in the year; the Seventh Symphony, especially, with its long, broad, lyrical introduction on cellos, opening an hour-long span of contrasting cumulative forces.
The first movement seems to alternate between a reflective loneliness – Bruckner, perhaps, wandering through the open countryside of Upper Austria (his home) – and then, via radiant brass chorales and ethereal strings, achieving some of the most forceful affirmations in all 19th-century symphonic music. The ending of the first movement alone is enough to convince you of the unbridled power of Bruckner’s vision: horns, trombones and trumpets taking us further to the top of the mountain, with rasping, Germanic Wagner tubas (four in number) reinforcing the tidal wave – and a massive body of strings upholding the unity and nobility of this unforgettable scene in music.
Bruckner’s symphonies underwent numerous revisions, the composer often tormented by (in the early days) the less than enthusiastic reception that his works attracted. (Audience members walked out of the first performance of the Third – reactions that undoubtedly contributed to self-doubt on Bruckner’s part, and even nervous breakdowns.) Vienna seemed hostile to this rural organist-turned-composer – fashionable society seemingly bemused by Bruckner’s short schoolmasterly figure, his local accent, uncosmopolitan ways and straightforward faith. “Sea serpents” or “boa constrictors” was how some notable critics saw his long, heavy orchestral scores. And yet, in time, he attracted some great conducting champions, including Hans Richter, who enabled the symphonies to take their place – as was Bruckner’s hope – in the canon alongside Beethoven and Wagner.
The Seventh Symphony was written in the early 1880s, at about the time of Wagner’s demise – the slow movement reflecting Bruckner’s anguish on hearing of the death of the composer of Tristan, Die Meistersinger, and The Ring, the man he venerated. This section of the symphony seems like a prolonged elegy and memorial; Bruckner, the former organist of Linz Cathedral, weaving a funeral cloth, or making an oration, through deep, slow-moving, tectonic passages, which build and build (as is his way) until another massive release of energy is encountered, surmounted by a spectacular single cymbal clash. Soon, though, the power subsides again, and the movement ends with doleful shadows from the lower brass register and simple reflection from the strings.
The third movement, the scherzo, brought out the very best from the performers in that 2nd September Prom: the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, resplendent in white tie and tails, and as large a body of players as could be assembled on the Royal Albert Hall platform. It has to be said that listening to Bruckner is like being in a church or cathedral on a solemn occasion, and so the performance of a symphony by him demands ritual and an impressive “physical” presence which only strict formality can honestly give. You simply couldn’t play Bruckner in more casual dress: it is the music of the late-19th century, of the Austrian empire, of the romantic era of Sturm und Drang. But of course, it is the execution of the performance which must truly count, especially with the critic, and the RSNO – concentrating upon and grappling with the great ascents and horizons of this demanding work – generated, at times, a feeling which I felt came close to divine inspiration, or at least the inspiration which Bruckner was seeking. The occasional small slip in the brass during moments of hectic engagement and (what must be) great stress, counted for nothing – when compared to the overall tone which the orchestra mustered: a tone which was characterised by a euphonious lightness of the upper strings; an autumnal glow to the cellos and basses (which were also capable of that Brucknerian heavy tread); and a thrilling coordination – so vital in the powerful, rushing rhythms of the relentless but strangely galumphing scherzo.
The RSNO’s Music Director, Peter Oundjian, presided over this Bruckner 7 with energy, mastery and understanding, in an animated and bold conducting style (plenty of eye contact, involvement, large gestures, definite direction); and on the strength of this performance alone, I would rate this Canadian-born conductor as a true, or very promising emerging Brucknerian – although I have only heard him in this one work of Bruckner’s. Drawing together the great themes and ideas of the symphony for the final movement (which seems compact, full of ease, sunny, in fact, in its opening lines), Peter Oundjian and the RSNO adopted a strong tempo – not lingering very much, but never rushing a single phrase. The final light through the cathedral windows shone beautifully, the Royal Scottish orchestra achieving a great peace in the soft, tender string passages – which are so lovingly attended by the woodwind (which seems to be playing nostalgic ideas – as if Bruckner is saying something to us about remembering and cherishing something). Suddenly, though, in the last movement – amid the reappearance of the doleful, brooding brass shadows – great high-flown statements on trumpets are unleashed, like a final emphatic address. Any disturbance or question mark, however, is corrected, as themes gather triumphantly for the final statement, in which the whole orchestra (as at the end of the first movement) pours out its heart.
The capacity audience at the hall was clearly appreciative of Bruckner’s Seventh – and perhaps some of the older promenaders remember the Seventh and the mighty Eighth performed in seasons past, at about this early-September time. It is worth remembering, too, that Bruckner once played the Royal Albert Hall organ, so it is fitting that his symphonies are played in this great space.
Outside, on the way home, the night air was cool, wet and full of the change of the season – a sad feeling as we enter the last week of the 2015 Proms, but one made more bearable by such a ringing interpretation of a monumental 19th-century symphony.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review