Cologne's spectacular underground Philharmonie has a problem. Its roof forms a pleasant piazza for tourists heading for the glories of the city's gothic cathedral, but the noise of their feet can be heard in the concert hall below, so whenever there is a performance or rehearsal, marshalls have to patrol the square, keeping it clear of clattering footsteps.

Michael Sanderling © Marco Borggreve
Michael Sanderling
© Marco Borggreve

You might think they need not have bothered when the Dresden Philharmonic came to town on Wednesday, bringing a blast of Bruckner that would drown out even a troupe of dancing chimneysweeps in hobnail boots, but Bruckner's Seventh Symphony is notorious for its false climaxes and sudden diminuendos, so those marshalls were as necessary as they were during the first piece of the evening, Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor.

The barefoot, elfin Alice Sara Ott was the soloist, bringing a wistful, light and reflective quality to this most feminine of concertos. There was nothing of the heavy bombast that some male pianists sometimes invest in this piece; instead we had the tender love letter to Clara that Schumann intended.

Conductor Michael Sanderling kept a tight rein on the Philharmonic in deference to Ott's mercurial playing. Forbears of these players gave the première of this piece, with Clara as soloist, in Dresden in 1845, so there is a certain pride of ownership here that needed to be kept in check. Strings whispered reverentially towards the close of the first movement, with Ott's beautifully measured cadenza making an emphatic statement void of masculine histrionics.

Sanderling and Ott brought an airy delight to the jovial finale which rollicked along in a good-natured breeze and if at the close Ott perhaps lacked the necessary heft to make a powerful dramatic statement, this was still a delightful, profoundly captivating performance.

Alice Sara Ott © Jonas Becker
Alice Sara Ott
© Jonas Becker

And so to the mountain that is Bruckner's Seventh. Early on we caught a glimpse of the awesome firepower of the Dresden Philharmonic when the first great theme surges towards one of its many base camps on the way to the summit, strings steely bright, horns warm, trombones and tuba stentorian.

The Adagio, dedicated to Wagner and the symphony's emotional core, unfolded with stately grandeur, with principal viola and second violin maintaining almost constant eye contact to coordinate the counter melodies that decorate the unrelenting logic of the main elegiac theme.

But even playing and conducting of this quality cannot disguise the fact that this symphony, not unlike the great cathedral next door, is a stupendous exercise in architecture, building great facades of sound with often very simple melodic material. Cologne Cathedral took 600 years to complete. It sometimes feels as though Bruckner had a similar timeframe in mind.

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