Two diametrically opposed pieces of large-scale music from 1887 hailing from two opposing ends of the Romantic spectrum, Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, and Bruckner’s apocalyptic Symphony no. 8 in D minor (the 1890 version) looked like a brilliant programme. Brahms’ punctiliously arranged and meticulously orchestrated concerto, with its memorable dramatic passages, is a solid piece that ultimately falls emotionally flat as a consequence of the composer’s tenacity for perfection. There’s almost no space left for the human factor to intervene and buoy any expressive evocation in the listener. Against that, Bruckner’s symphony is haphazard, chaotic and relying too much on interpretation (of both the performer and the audience) and therefore, while significantly less than technically perfect, able to stir emotions like very few other compositions. What could be anticipated from such an evening, under ideal circumstances, was a first half awash with admiration for the performers, namely the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra headed by Sascha Goetzel, as well as the evening’s two world-class soloists, Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich, and a second half with unconditional submission to the genius of Bruckner and his alternating robust perturbations and romantic undulations. Such expectations, I am happy to report, went mostly fulfilled.

Sascha Goetzel © Harald Hoffmann
Sascha Goetzel
© Harald Hoffmann

I say this with no cynical intent, but the only acceptable performance of Brahms’ Double Concerto is a perfect one. That’s because the piece, which was a peace offering to his friend Joseph Joachim, has little to offer or look forward to musically, except a worthy reading that recompenses what’s written. Technical perfection is the concerto’s principal redeeming quality, but it’s also its gaping pitfall. BIPO, under its enthusiastic and energetic conductor Mr. Goetzel, started off the main theme of the Allegro a little faster than the norm – not alarmingly fast, but hurried nonetheless. Mr. Elschenbroich’s cello recitative arrived in similar fashion, with little expression and technical brilliance soon joined by Ms. Benedetti’s Stradivarius in its slightly muted tone. The cohesiveness between the two musicians was palpable, with the cellist taking cues from the violinist who also seemed to fine-tune the orchestra’s sometimes uneven tempi. Though the concerto offers limited opportunities for either soloist to fully exhibit his/her abilities, the dainty Rondo was used extravagantly for this very purpose in timely bursts of marcatos and staccatos in the initial and final sections, and by way of sensitive yearnings in the middle lyrical segment. Overall, there was little to complain about here, given the score’s own limitations, except for the lack of an encore despite an expectant and insistent crowd.

I have been a fan of BIPO’s brass and horns for a while now and tonight, I was delighted once more to hear them in a top-notch performance of Bruckner’s Eighth which they played with absolute determination without taking over more than their fair share of the aggregate orchestral sound. Mr. Goetzel masterfully sculpted the Allegro’s momentous ups and downs, its entropies and its redemptions. Unfortunately, the strings’ participation occasionally felt lukewarm, reducing the music’s impact to less than idyllic. The Scherzo was chillingly loud at times, as it should be, but it comfortably shape-shifted to strike a balance in the trio, thanks to superlative playing by the woodwinds. The elongated Adagio, where the strings take control, was the only below-par moment of the evening. This is not music of long respite; to the contrary, it is supposed to feel like a religious experience where the composer rewards patience and anticipation with overwhelming jubilation. The orchestra was expansive in its timing, which is good, but also in its dynamics. It was only during the climax that the music suddenly started to ring loud, and as a result, it felt disjointed from the rest of the movement. My misgivings here, however, was just as quickly forgiven during the Finale where the orchestra came together assuredly and gave us a very excitable conclusion with exceptional work from the timpani beating to what seemed like time itself. Sascha Goetzel carefully arranged the contrapuntal return of the symphony’s main themes, putting one layer on top of the other, managing to fool even the most seasoned listeners with Bruckner’s false codas, and he ended this monumental symphony triumphantly. The audience’s hasty applause, however, seemed to disturb him, as it did me: such music and performance needs at least a few seconds to sink in.

****1