The two works brought together in this programme are very different, not least that the Beethoven Violin Concerto was well known by almost everyone in the audience, but hardly any would have had the opportunity to hear Bruckner's Symphony in D minor, known as the Symphony no. 0 or Die Nullte, in the concert hall ever before. It is very rarely performed – all the more credit to Gerd Schaller and the Ebrach Music Summer for having programmed it. The demands upon the conductor and players were therefore different for each piece: it was necessary to make the Beethoven sound new and exciting, to find a way of piercing through the familiarity of the work so that audience's interest is kindled anew; but after the interval was a work the composer himself has dismissed as “not valid”, “nullified”, and the performers' job was to persuade the audience that the composer was wrong, that this was a work worthy to follow Beethoven's masterpiece, and whose place in the Bruckner canon is beyond doubt.  Although I don't think they succeeded in the first of these aspirations, they fulfilled the second magnificently, the performance of the Bruckner symphony an unqualified triumph.

Gerd Schaller © Cella Seven
Gerd Schaller
© Cella Seven

In Ingolf Turban's account of the Beethoven concerto there seemed to be an expressive restraint, something perhaps too conscientious about the performance so that it rarely took wing. Although before his entry, during the orchestral introduction, Turban showed himself to be an attentive observer of his colleagues' playing, turning to the woodwind and then the violins in their exposition of the themes, there was little sense of creative interplay once he began to play, and I felt that he needed more rhapsodic spontaneity and more variety of tone for the work to find its way anew into our hearts. Not that there were not very affecting moments; for example, the quiet meditation on the main theme in his cadenza just before the stomping close of the first movement, and there were special moments in the slow movement. But the transition to the Rondo finale was understated, had little new life in it, and it was only in the final section that one really felt the heart of the work beginning to beat with true enthusiasm.

But after the interval it was as if there were before us a completely new orchestra. The violin sound, which had been a little thin during the Beethoven, suddenly blossomed with the breadth of tone suited to a late Romantic work, the cellos gave us some glorious rich playing, solos from winds, especially the horn, flute and clarinet, were beautifully presented and a joy to listen to. It was in their quasi-ornamental interpolations that one recognised one of the characteristics that would grace the better known later symphonies by this composer, but more significantly there was a sense of space and of mystery, of music organised over a large span which in this performance made the case for this symphony, composed between his first and second, having a crucial place in Bruckner's discovery of his own voice.

The conductor's handling of tempo was masterly, a prerequisite for giving this music a stature that many recorded performances fail to achieve. The first movement opens with a march-like tread and a rhythmic theme, a sort of ostinato, marked Allegro (which the Vienna Philharmonic conductor of the time, Dessoff, failed to recognise as a theme at all, and so dismissed the work, perhaps leading to Bruckner's “nullification” of it two years later). It recurs throughout the movement, and in Schaller's performance you sensed that its pulse was there throughout, underlying the other themes, so endowing the movement not merely with an impressive cohesion and unity, but also a sense of ongoing symphonic discussion. It was in this movement that the wind instrument solos were especially magical as they commented on the nobly played chorales from the brass.

The Andante is not yet a movement with the gravity of the Adagios for which the later symphonies are so renowned, and it would be a mistake to try and load the lighter textures with greater depth. The Philharmonie Festiva strings and woodwind provided a purity of tone thoroughly in keeping with the delicate palette with which this music elaborates its restrained emotions, and the woodwind choir responded in kind.

The energetic scherzo came over as a precursor of Shostakovich as much as it did Bruckner's later thumping, rustic Scherzos and the Philharmonia Festiva gave it  a superb, fleet-footed account.

For me, the real surprise came with the Finale which has on occasion seemed a somewhat inadequate movement, but this evening it brought the symphony to a triumphant close and elicited a very enthusiastic response from the audience. Bruckner himself could hardly have conceived that such a thing might ever happen to this symphony he so categorically discarded – though never destroyed. It has an enigmatic slow introduction before the main theme storms in with heavy brass and wide intervals, such as Bruckner went on to use with even greater effect in later symphonies. There is a central section in which the main theme receives some fugal treatment, and this was assembled with great clarity and rhythmic verve by maestro Schaller and his orchestra, and they brought off the exciting, blazing coda with complete authority to close a superb performance, demonstrating convincingly that this is a symphony worth infinitely more than the “zero” it’s composer wrote on its pages.