Two strange bedfellows these – Penderecki and Bruckner – brought together in the acoustically awkward, if architecturally spectacular surrounding of St Pauls Cathedral. Yet the anguish expressed in both works gave them a sort of kinship.
The enduring strangeness of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima from 1960 found a heightened level with the echoes of the great St Paul’s dome being added into the mix. The already complex textures became even more surreal when they overlapped each other over and over again - I'm not sure this gave the audience a real idea of the intense power of the piece (an early avant garde masterpiece and still the composer's best known work), but it was a pretty odd experience in its own right. Whether this was a good performance by Daniel Harding and LSO strings it was impossible to tell, but its progression directly into the rumbling opening of the Bruckner was a great dramatic gesture.
And Bruckner’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor, his last and left unfinished, also finds some pretty strange and dark places over the course of its three completed movements. This darkness comes from a very personal battle with life, death and faith that increasingly pervade his symphonies. By the time he composed this final essay in the form, Bruckner was very isolated and insular, despite having at last gained some recognition from the snooty musical establishment in Vienna. Yet this is the most confident and harmonically intrepid of his symphonies.
The opening movement needs to be given the right balance of forward movement and lush meanderings – the conductor shoudn't neglect the underlying pulse. Harding chose a slow overall tempo and slowed down a tad too much in the radiant melodic sections in the exposition of the movement. It felt as if he was too aware of the echo and was trying to incorporate it into the performance. However he seemed to loosen up as the drama of the development sections unfolded and by the coda he allowed the tempo to flow and the final bars were quite as resplendent as they should be - the final chord echoing for a good five seconds.
The galumphing scherzo is the most striking by Bruckner, if not in its form which is very strictly formulaic, but in its rhythmic insistence, harmonic daring and generally unnerving atmosphere. Only in its scampering presto trio section are we on terra firma – and this was charmingly brought off in this performance. The insistent rhythms of the rest of the movement did indeed merge into a wash of sound, but Harding chose the right tempo and didn’t seem to worry about the acoustic consequences which was a wise move.
The extraordinary slow movement, surely Bruckner’s greatest achievement, came off best under the dome. The long melodic lines alternating with ecstatic fanfares had the space to wind their way round the building and back, even with Harding choosing a reasonably swift tempo. The inexorable progression to the final apocalyptic climax was perfectly judged and for the first time the music seemed bigger than its surroundings. Particularly beautiful woodwind solos pierced the bed of strings and very haunting they were too. The only disappointment was in the coda, with its self-quotations from earlier works and the sense of resignation in the face of all that life can throw at you, which Harding seemed to underplay. If there is a place to linger in all Bruckner’s symphonies, this is it.