This was irresistible programming: Mozart and Bruckner in two of the greatest works in their respective genres, played by one of the finest London orchestras, with visiting soloist and conductor both of considerable and burgeoning repute. So why were there so many empty seats and the balcony not even opened? Those who chose to stay away on account of England’s football team performing in Brazil certainly made a bad call: something considerably more impressive took place at the Barbican Hall.
The gentle orchestral opening of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major was elegantly moulded under the direction of Fabio Luisi, not slow but with a slight dying-fall at the ends of phrases, giving it that wistful, fragile quality that has made it such a popular work. Lise de la Salle, on the other hand, when it came to her turn with the repeated exposition, gave the music an energetic, somewhat angular, sometimes spiky, articulation - distinctive Mozart playing with an almost Beethovenian heft that she applied throughout the movement. The contrast between her phrasing and accentuation and that of the woodwind was intriguing throughout, and it made for a constructive dialectic between orchestra and soloist, as though displaying the same material from different perspectives from which to synthesise a wonderfully multi-dimensional whole.
In contrast De la Salle introduced the Adagio with great purity of tone and phrasing – no dramatic or poetic interventions, no obtrusive ornamentation, simply a rapt beauty with the gentlest of dynamic shading, which the orchestra took up and amplified. And she launched into the Rondo at a cracking pace, so fast that I wondered how the orchestral musicians might cope, and indeed clarity of articulation in the woodwind was not always able to match that presented on the keyboard. Nevertheless, it was joyful and exciting throughout and rounded off an excellent performance.
“Hallelujah!” wrote Bruckner on the score when he finished the draft his Symphony no. 8 in C minor. It took him over three years to bring it to completion in 1887 and he was 63 years old. “The finale,” he wrote to his young 24 year old friend and pupil, Franz Schalk, “is the most significant movement of my life.” He sent the score off to the great Wagner conductor Hermann Levi, who had had a stunning and, for Bruckner unprecedented, success with the Symphony no. 7. Levi replied it was impossible for him to perform it: “I am inclined to think that after years of isolation and battling with the world you have lost your sense of beauty and harmony and euphony.” Bruckner was shattered, and the result was that he set about revising the work, often in collaboration with Franz and his brother Joseph Schalk. Together they produced the 1890 version of the symphony we are used to hearing.
But what Fabio Luisi and the LSO played so magnificently at this concert was pure Bruckner that has been only rarely performed, the symphony as he had first conceived it in 1887, and the case they made for the work was thoroughly convincing. It is a wilder, more ‘darkly phantasmagorical’ (as Dr Dermot Gault describes it) work than the more rigorous and severe later version, and Luisi conjured a whole shuddering kaleidoscope of death-ridden and celestial visions from the orchestra, who responded with inspired playing. There is much work for the quartet of Wagner tubas in this version, glorious darkly noble music, but not the easiest of instruments, but (with assistance from Katie Woolley from the Philharmonia) they seemed faultless. There’s a heart-stopping horn solo at the beginning of the first movement development, above a pianissimo string tremolo, that provokes a plaintive response from the oboe. The sheer expressive magic Timothy Jones (horn) and Gordon Hunt (oboe) brought to this passage was quite out of this world and unforgettable. In this version of the symphony, the C major transfiguration is achieved repeatedly, rather than reserved to be the final destination, and the extraordinary coda to the first movement blasted out its repeated dotted rhythms with an obsessiveness that bordered on madness.
Luisi took the Scherzo very quickly. It was wonderful to hear the cellos present the repetitive galumphing theme with each note nicely separated, no hint of the legato that afflicts less courageous performances the rhythm was wonderfully accented, Luisi becoming very animated indeed on the podium. The Trio entered a dreamy world of romantic melancholy, the LSO strings superb, with evocative exchanges between horns and woodwind.
The Adagio is Bruckner’s longest; slow-breathed mystical calm and shimmering lyricism ultimately give uneasy birth to troubled angular dissonances, feverish ecstatic rising sequences, and a massive C major climax embellished with six cymbal clashes. It is intense and visionary music and was given a performance worthy of its aspirations, the LSO strings and horns excelling themselves, and Luisi moulding the music sensitively, slow but never indulgent, its circuitous route to the summit never losing its sense of inexorable progress.
In recently discovered letters, Bruckner wrote to conductor Hans Richter requesting slow tempos for the symphony, saying that it should last 90 minutes. Luisi’s interpretation wasn’t far short of that. Perhaps the Finale might have benefited from a slower, more dogged pulse, but with its mighty fanfares, Wagner tuba chorales, and its ultimate apotheosis paced to perfection, it brought to a close a performance of revelatory power and vision - a vindication for the composer's first thoughts.