Like the stirrings of Fafner from his lair, the beginning of Bruckner’s Eighth, this Leviathan of symphonies, should suggest awe-inspiring power and foreboding. The Wagnerian allusion is apposite, since the great Saxon composer of lengthy operas with his own distinctive sound-world was deeply revered by the humble and pious Austrian. He himself stated that an important horn figure in the Adagio was inspired by Siegfried’s leitmotif and in the same movement there is a direct quotation from Tristan.

Lawrence Renes © Mats Bäcker
Lawrence Renes
© Mats Bäcker

In this performance of the Haas edition given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Renes, the very start sounded a little prosaic, promising more in the way of consolation than dread. Given the calendar moment, a limbo period between Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night, I was rather hoping that the reading of this monumental work, the scariest in the entire canon and the closest we get to intimations of our own mortality, would give due weight to the terror and the anguish. Instead, this first movement had long lyrical lines harking back to Schubert and hushed strings creating a cushion of sound on which David Pyatt’s first horn solo magically floated, followed by the entry of the four resplendent Wagner tubas.

That initial disappointment on my part should in no way detract from the fine qualities on display in the rest of the performance. There are as many ways to create a tasty pie as there are a number of differing and valid approaches to this composer. But a conductor who fails to heed the essentials will find that the pastry crumbles in their hands. To put it simply, Renes got the things that matter just right. In Bruckner you need a firm grasp of the architecture (and it’s the fault of lesser conductors when the music merely sounds episodic), but you must also secure an organic flow that ensures seamless transitions and without any instances of self-indulgent point-making. Above all, there has to be a warm body of sound that comes as close as possible to the Wagnerian influence and the organ-like splendour that was Bruckner’s own ideal, rather than the paint-stripping and excessive use of the accelerator pedal now fashionable in some quarters. It never ever pays to hurry this composer along: in Robert Simpson’s memorable phrase (quoted by Stephen Johnson in his pre-concert talk), the final movement “expresses patience”. On the basis of this Eighth, Renes has the makings of a very fine Brucknerian. He has clearly internalised every single bar of the score (conducted entirely from memory) and, still only in his forties, has time to further mature. If he didn’t quite achieve those precious moments of transcendence which take the level of the greatest readings to the point of sublimity, he came very close indeed.

The spacious Adagio that takes half an hour to properly traverse is a real test of a conductor’s technical and interpretative skills. It is a long time since I last heard that opening delivered with such an absolutely steady bedrock from the lower strings, matched by the beautifully controlled lines from the antiphonally placed upper strings, all voiced in wonderful long breaths, with the three harps perfectly integrated into the overall sound, the pacing quite faultless. The textures in this movement glowed like the rich, dark colours of a Rembrandt painting, bathed in late-afternoon sunshine. Renes made me especially conscious of Bruckner’s inner landscape here: the sense of isolation and desolation, the moments of intense longing, the pain present in wistfulness. When the climax arrived, there was a magnificent sense of release crowned by the clash of cymbals.

Renes had the good fortune to be working with an LPO at the top of its game. True, there were some imprecisions in ensemble and minor slips, but the playing was absolutely committed, with a woodwind section that individually and collectively constantly delighted the ear with their purity and clarity, refulgent upper and lower brass (occasionally straying into an imbalance towards the latter) and strings that were supple and sweet-toned throughout.

This performance was originally to have been conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski, who until his death earlier this year had been working through the later Bruckner symphonies with the LPO. His own recording of the Eighth bears the nickname “The Apocalyptic” (not sanctioned by the composer). It is one instance of the many such attributes and superlatives used to characterise a symphony utterly unique in scale. Given the savage criticism that the original version of 1887 was subjected to, it must have come as balm to his soul that a few days after the revised version was premiered in 1892 Bruckner received this tribute from his fellow composer Hugo Wolf: “This symphony is the creation of a giant…a triumph as complete as any Roman emperor could have wished for.”