The conductor raised his baton to embark on the fourth movement – there was some slight disturbance in the hall. He lowered his hands and waited. He raised the baton again and waited. When silence was absolute he gave the sign for the timpanist to sound the pianissimo, misterioso drum roll that ushers in this extraordinary movement. This finale is a performing version that aims to present the dying composer’s last thoughts in the context of a coherent musical whole. It makes for a long work – some 80 minutes – and Jesko Sirvend’s intervention sent the message that something worthy of our deepest attention lay ahead, an act of rededication before following Bruckner’s cataclysmic Ninth Symphony through all its dissonant travails to its blazing D major conclusion.

Akademische Philharmonie Heidelberg
Akademische Philharmonie Heidelberg

The big crisis, around which the symphony pivots, is a massive dissonance at the climax of the Adagio. It has been claimed the devout Catholic Bruckner revealed doubt and despair as he approached his last days, but recently the composer Keith Gifford has suggested that this crisis is a contemplation of the crucifixion itself and the very foundation of Bruckner's faith in salvation. Well, the two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the approach that Bruckner is creating something for us to contemplate, rather than expressing his personal distress, accorded well with the impressive interpretation presented at this performance. Indeed, in the repeated striving, rising, angular sequences it was possible to picture the Man dragging his cross towards Golgotha, interrupted by sorrowful, prayerful reflections. With this Adagio, although the students who make up most of the Akademische Philharmonie Heidelberg had been playing well enough before, suddenly now the richness and fullness of tone they achieved, and the perfect shaping of the opening phrase by Maestro Sirvend, came as something of a shock! This was very powerful playing indeed.

In the first movement things hadn’t been quite so impressive, the orchestral playing occasionally uneven. Usually the work is performed as a three-movement work in which the mighty opening movement is balanced by the deeply expressive Adagio. But as a four-movement work the structure requires that the two outer movements in some way reflect each other. Perhaps this was why Sirvend attempted a more dynamic than monumental approach here. At times this was very effective, as in the march that follows the main theme’s climactic reiteration in the second part – this had a gripping electricity, but the climaxes themselves and the coda somehow didn't quite deliver the implacable cataclysmic effect of which they are capable. He also chose a sudden quick tempo for the third theme, which altered the proportions of the exposition. It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it did unsettle the symmetry of the movement.

The Scherzo and Trio were really scary, very fast, and featuring some robust and characterful playing by the first oboe, and wonderful scampering violins in the Trio. With the finale in place, this movement pairs itself with the Adagio: the hellish hammering of one contrasted with the tragic slow strings of the other, affording occasional glimpses of heaven in the rising trumpet motive that will figure so importantly in the coda of the finale of this version. The closing pages of the Adagio suffered not so much from the fairly quick tempo chosen, but from some unevenness in the playing.

For the most part, the finale was as moving and as convincing as I have heard. The orchestral texture, which sometimes has seemed not to rise to the level of complexity and effectiveness of the previous movements, here was sonorous enough never to allow a moment’s doubt that Bruckner had the measure of this movement. It was played with total conviction and continued the symphonic argument in the intriguingly odd but always effective way characteristic of this composer. Orchestra and conductor really responded to the score, the music filled with that excitement and commitment that is the great reward available from young players to whom the music is a new discovery. The big fugue that constitutes the first theme’s exposition had feverish energy and clarity, the heroic horn theme that Bruckner introduces at its climax already giving promise of a triumph to come, and so the pathos of the meagre double-dotted falling sequences of the second theme recapitulation became all the more affecting.

The coda’s the problem – there’s precious little of Bruckner that survives, and much to be conjectured and composed for any performing version. The editorial team who made this version have had various attempts to get it right, and certainly the use of the rising trumpet theme from the Adagio makes for a glorious close. But in this performance somewhere en route the music seemed to flounder and lose itself in chaos – which may be just as it should be for this particular spiritual journey.I felt the need for greater audible formal clarity which would make the final victory that much more astonishing. That said, this performance was nevertheless a triumph for this orchestra and conductor – and for Bruckner’s last battle to complete the work before he died.