One wonders what each of the composers might have thought about being programmed in the same concert. Brahms had some unpleasant things to say about Bruckner, famously that his symphonies were a swindle; and Bruckner remarked that Brahms is Brahms, but he, Bruckner, preferred his own stuff. The transition from the Brahms in the first half to the Bruckner in the second was as though one had stepped out of the civilised confines of the well-furnished drawing room into the vast clarity of an open-air mountainscape. But the angular, muscular quality of the typical masculine Brahms opening theme in the double concerto also fed into Eschenbach’s way of playing Bruckner. The great long-breathed opening theme of Bruckner’s Seventh also had some of that angular, rather than legato, quality to its phrasing that kept it clear of sentimentality. Also, both the Brahms and the first movement of the Bruckner were cast in an autumnal light, with special emphasis, for example, applied to the diminuendo of the short falling phrases that end the Bruckner first theme exposition.
The Brahms double concerto displays a love affair, something that both these unmarried old men in late nineteenth century Vienna could merely dream of - but what a touching dream it is! After the stern, heavy orchestral introduction, the cello launches into a recitative, virile and masculine, but full of pathos, sadness; gentler orchestral music dominated by woodwind introduces the solo violin, with a feminine lyricism – and this archetypal polarity was very movingly created before us by cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and violinist Nicola Benedetti. In both the first movement and the united love song of the andante second movement, the two soloists were wonderfully matched, their music played to and for each other with the melodic lines entwined like the limbs and souls of lovers, a communication enhanced by both soloists playing from the same music stand. The orchestral part functioned like a picture frame, almost as if to keep the passion within bounds.
This was Brahms’s last major orchestral work, and in this performance there seemed always the air of imminent loss not far beneath the surface – a melancholy not entirely dispelled by the third movement’s dancing Vivace ma non troppo, with the emphasis perhaps too much on the ‘ma non troppo’. One longed for a bit more vivace – both there and even more so in the first movement of Bruckner’s Seventh. Rarely if ever do you hear this movement performed at anything like the Allegro moderato that Bruckner asks for. A recent recording of a two piano version played at tempi informed by the first printed editions gives a jaunty first movement with a timing of a little over 14 mins; Eschenbach stretched it out to 24 minutes! It was lovely – it was very lovely, faultlessly played by the LPO, every moment glorious to listen to, but it meant we had a very long symphony, weighed down by two adagios.
The Adagio proper was absolutely wonderful,music of immense depth and tragic nobility. Especially fine was the alternating second subject, for all the world like another love song strayed from the Brahms. Eschenbach’s control of the layering of sound and crescendo in the climaxes of the main theme was as good as it comes. No apology here for the controversial climactic cymbal clash - they were loud, dramatic and held aloft for all to see as their tintinnabulation died away. The Wagner tubas' dark, rich tones were displayed to powerful effect in their solemn threnody after the climax, heartfelt playing capped by a great anguished cry from the horns. The Scherzo was full of dance and humour in Eschenbach’s hands, little engaging interventions from the woodwinds encouraged to sound out amongst all the cock-crow trumpetings and galloping rhythmic string figures; the Trio full of pastoral relaxation and delight. And another of Eschenbach’s great strengths was displayed in the finale – absolute formal clarity, the structure beautifully laid out before us. The orchestral sound was magnificent throughout, from all sections of the orchestra: if only the first movement tempo had been such that there wasn’t this great mismatch and imbalance between the pace of the two outer movements – after all, they share the same thematic material, they are designed to reflect each other! - this would have been a really first rate performance.