All three works in this programme were written by composers in mid-life - late 30s, early 40s - and all worked within the Austro-German tradition, but one would be surprised to find they had much else in common. The performances this evening did, however, manage to forge an unexpected congruence between them.
Pintscher’s ‘orchestral study’ towards Osiris set the agenda. It was a piece commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic as an ‘asteroid’ for Holst’s The Planets, and was a collage of effects, short-lived fragments, with a jazzy sort of virtuosic trumpet solo early on, and much frantic business for percussion with all four players tapping away at small drums, marimbas and such-like. Finally a gesture on the violins spirals up into nothingness. Most attractive were the quiet, secret sounds that surprised from within the orchestral tapestry. One member of the audience was so moved that, within that quiet moment at the finish usually inhabited by an irritating ‘Bravo!’-shouter, he felt called to shout out, ‘What a load of rubbish!’ Then came the applause.
A lot of piano shifting followed, as the extensive forces required for Pintscher’s seven minutes involved an orchestral piano which had to be replaced by one for the soloist in the Beethoven concerto. Lars Vogt brought a clipped and crystalline style to the execution of this mighty concerto, which produced a glistening jewel-like beauty for those wonderful quiet passages in the first movement development where the piano ruminates above quiet woodwind chords. But it seemed a little ill-suited to the grander, heroic moments, of which there are many. It was as though Beethoven were being dressed in a rather snappily-tailored light-weight suit which really just wasn’t quite him! To my ears there was an unproductive contrast between the piano and orchestral playing, often giving the impression of a lack of weight and heft to the piano part. The Adagio second movement had a distant, exquisite beauty, Vogt’s contribution like a glistening jewel from an alien asteroid, its surface glinting but without the language to reveal its elemental heart. After very slow, very quiet transitional arpeggios, that were more about their eccentric immediacy than the tense expectation of something exciting to come, the Rondo: Allegro finale came crashing in for all the world as though the music had at last been let off the leash. Every so often Vogt would helter-skelter down the keyboard and almost fall off his stool as he swung round to face the orchestra, and Jurowski’s gestures were always beautifully choreographed and never less than mesmerising - so it was a delightful performance to watch. But it was not quite so entrancing to listen to, and Beethoven’s extended structure seemed to be undermined towards the state of that assemblage of effects that had characterised towards Osiris.
Bruckner’s Symphony no. 1 starts with six repeated Cs on low strings. Well, it should do, but not tonight: the first bar was cut, and the little marching first theme came in after a mere two beats, as though one had put one’s pick-up down on the LP one groove too far in. And not merely topped, but tailed as well - a bar missing at the end of the movement. This, and other surprises in this performance, refer back to Bruckner’s first ideas of 1866. But, even though the orchestra didn’t quite play all the symphony as conducted by Bruckner in 1868, what they played, they played wonderfully. One of Bruckner’s most rarely performed works could not have received better advocacy. The LPO were on top form, and Jurowski had the eight double basses ranged along the back right, behind the trombones, which is always an inspiring sight. The sound of those trombones, especially in the Finale where they have much to do, was tremendous: a great, gritty, gravelly sound, played with wonderful assurance. Jurowski’s approach to this music had complete conviction and, very importantly, an overriding sense of direction. Bruckner has a profligate supply of themes and motives in the outer movements, and marshalling them all to face purposefully in the same direction is quite an achievement.
Even though he was by no means young, and had written great masses and the so-called Study Symphony in F, before it, this First Symphony does not yet speak with the characteristic Brucknerian voice we know from the Third Symphony onwards. Certainly there are many things here that later became major constituents to his style. Forthright dramatic brass statements, feverishly ecstatic string accompaniments to extended crescendos, a sudden silence followed by a quizzical or prayerful motive: they’re all in this symphony, as well as an idiosyncratic approach to form that requires a clear-sighted conductor. Jurowski gauged the first movement to perfection with the destination and climax revealed to be the end of the movement - suddenly everything fell into place. The Adagio’s shifting and searching opening led naturally to the ravishing main theme, with a glorious string sound from the LPO already at its first climax, and with added resplendence in the repeat towards the end of the movement.
The Scherzo comes thumping in, fortissimo on full orchestra, leading to a jaunty little theme on the second violins and violas, to which the woodwind have a brief rather sober reply. Delicate staccato descending violin quavers above a simple solo horn call begin the delightful trio section. The LPO played it all with great vitality, colour and imagination. The great triumph of the performance was the Finale, which bursts in with full brass - those wonderful trombones to the fore. Bruckner described it as someone bursting in the door announcing ‘Da bin ich!’: ‘Here I am!’. And here’s where the symphony began to sound like a collage of little motives and solo intrusions, from horn, bassoon, and the rest of the woodwind - each marvellously played and characterised - and so perhaps bringing back some thought of the asteroid world of Pintscher’s towards Osiris.
When the symphony finally stormed to its end, it was met with enthusiastic applause, which might perhaps encourage others to programme this symphony. There have been precious few opportunities to hear it in the UK over last half-century: maybe this concert will presage a new-found popularity for this engaging, odd, but always rewarding work.