The Vienna Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel brought a superb performance of Bruckner’s mighty Eighth Symphony to the penultimate night of the Proms, after a selection of Bach organ works from Klaus Sonnleitner.

Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Clichés abound in writing about Bruckner symphonies. One which cannot be escaped, however, is the necessity for an absolutely solid grasp of long structure. Under the right conditions of conductor and orchestra, the symphony will unfold into a brilliantly logical whole, the role of each passage clear in the greater scheme of things. So it was tonight: the context of every individual passage and paragraph was clear under Maazel’s baton, and the august forces in front of him coloured the rest with ease. We were permitted three moments in which to relax momentarily, between movements, in which Maazel would reach for the water on his stand (he conducted, as always, from memory) and the hall would collectively prepare itself for the next stanza in this vast work.

The opening minutes of the first movement immediately hinted at the vast canvas on which this performance was to be painted. Maazel tended towards the slow and steady throughout, and maintained a relatively stable pace through much of the first movement. There were no sudden accelerations for grander passages, leaving a sense of complete freedom; the symphony would pass in its own time, allowed to breathe naturally. We passed many moments of great beauty, chiefly in solos from principal horn and oboe. The climax of the movement, though a little scrappy in places, was monumentally bold, which only the impossibly soft ending of the movement (a rare thing in Bruckner symphonies) could surpass.

Maazel’s propensity for stately tempos made for a Scherzo which was more Moderato than Allegro. Despite this, the brass provided a strong sense of energy through some pleasing touches of articulation. They were seated rather unusually for the evening, raised up centrally behind the woodwind section. Trumpets sat behind the clarinets, trombones and tuba behind them, with horns behind the bassoons and Wagner tubas behind them. This compact arrangement made for an exceptionally strong focus of sound, suitably blazing when required but also capable of the most wonderfully soft playing in solo and supporting capacities. In the trio, for instance, there was a beautifully soft, mesmeric interaction between horn, harp and violin.

The Adagio, the emotional core of the work, opened with similarly sublime playing from the strings, who played with the golden, warm tone for which they are famed. They shimmered magically, each phrase hanging in the air, before a gloriously redemptive passage for Wagner tuba quartet. After further good work from woodwind and horns, a tremendous sense of anguish and intensity built towards the movement’s spectacular climax. In the upbeats to these twin peaks conductor and crash cymbal player stood with arms aloft for the most enormous deep breaths. They were a couple of the most thrilling individual moments I have heard in music.

The stage was set for the turbulent finale, whose opening march was trenchant and imposing. Tempos remained slow, which allowed the softer passages, particularly some beautifully played woodwind themes, to hark back to the slow movement. The intrinsic sense of structure was never lost, and by the time the coda began, the success of the performance was already sealed. The thunderous ending was the perfect icing.

In a pleasing nod to the young Bruckner’s development as an organist, Klaus Sonnleitner, the current organist of the monastery of St Florian, gave a strong performance of a selection of Bach organ works in the first half. Alexandre Guilmant’s arrangement of the Sinfonia from the Cantata “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir” was the highlight, allowing Sonnleitner to show a brilliant facility of legato touch and phrasing. His choices of registration were excellent, showing both the Hall organ and the Bach in a good light. The Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV543 hinted at the architecture so vital to Bruckner and closed the first half with a brilliant flourish. This was no mere aperitif, but an excellent first half in its own right.

The Vienna Philharmonic seems to come under a lot of criticism at the moment, for being inadequately diverse in race and gender (I counted six women tonight) and occasionally casual and sloppy in ensemble. Equally, combinations of big-name conductor, orchestra and symphony often come together and fail to match the stratospheric expectations put on them. As Maazel came on stage to conduct the Bruckner tonight the applause and cheers were more akin to those at the end of a very fine performance, such was the expectation. The ovation 90 minutes later was immeasurably more vociferous. This was a superb concert.