Conductor Adrian Brown began his introduction telling us of how he’d loved Bruckner since he was a teenager, and then went on to say that Bruckner’s symphonies were like “cathedrals in sound”. I confess to closing my eyes in jaded exasperation. Those of us who are privileged to have attended many performances of Bruckner symphonies, read many a programme note and heard quite a number of introductions, long for an appraisal of the works that might enlighten us without recourse to this overworked cliché. But, in the event, Maestro Brown elaborated the simile to new levels of descriptive evocation by embarking on a list of exactly which cathedrals each symphony might be likened to! Symphonies 1 and 2 are like Lichfield and Rochester, and no. 3, with all its revisions and additions, is to be compared with St Albans Abbey; the perfection of no. 7 is as Durham Cathedral.

There was no shortage of excellent introductory material at this concert. The programme notes by principal cellist Alice McVeigh were written with such a refreshing mixture of liveliness and informed individual response to the music, that they seem to me to be a model of how such writing should be. They had an infectious enthusiasm that could not do other than give the work a good start on its journey towards those in the audience unfamiliar with Bruckner’s music. That Adrian Brown had loved and been familiar with this music for many years seemed apparent in the surety with which he approached the work, whereby there was a sense of a consistent musical pulse throughout, so ensuring the unity of the overall conception. There are so many temptations for dramatic effect or sentimental indulgence over the panorama presented on this vast canvas that performances can easily undermine themselves by losing sight of the bigger picture. There was no danger of that on this occasion.

And the picture was very big. Only yesterday I had attended Bruckner’s Second Symphony arranged for chamber ensemble at the Royal Academy of Music; by contrast, the Bromley Symphony Orchestra had no truck with anything on a small scale. Six trombones and six trumpets were twice as many as the score calls for, and there was an extra timpanist. The stage was packed with musicians – and musicians of high quality. The score calls for three harps “if possible” – well, it wasn't possible, but lone harpist Elizabeth Scorah made up for their absence by splendidly audible playing, and accomplishing with finesse that frightening exposed arpeggio in the Haas edition of this work, when everyone else but she suddenly falls silent at the climax of the Adagio.

Maestro Brown directed a performance of considerable gravitas in which the architectural view of the work he espoused in his opening remarks seemed well justified. The consistent tempo of the three groups of the first-movement exposition, with no appreciable slowing-down for the lyrical second subject, reaped the reward of laying out the movement with remarkable cogency – a virtue present throughout the symphony. There was a truly heart-rending moment as the development began when Caroline Marwood’s oboe delivered her sad and solitary reply to the solo horn above the pianissimo string tremolo, followed by the baleful sound of the Wagner tubas. Often for non-professional orchestras it’s the quiet passages that present the greatest challenges, but the Bromley Symphony Orchestra showed particular accomplishment in Bruckner’s more meditative music, and the diminuendo into silence that closes the first movement was beautifully done.

pbl
Watch for free! - click here

There was certainly no problem with loudness. With the timpani placed to the left quite near the front of the stage and all that extra brass, the first movement climaxes had been absolutely shattering, and the timpanist’s contribution to the Scherzo ensured that this movement too hammered home its point, even though at less animated moments it occasionally seemed in danger of losing power.

The Adagio requires a quality of string playing that non-professional orchestras have difficulty in supplying. Nevertheless there was much deeply felt and committed playing, with strong attention to dynamics that, together with Adrian Brown’s unwavering grip on the form, made this Adagio very moving. Flute, clarinet and horn solos were all outstanding, and the Wagner tubas, whose appearance (the instruments, that is, not the players) seemed in need of polishing-up, were very eloquent in the first presentation of their chorale. The quiet closing pages, a valedictory dialogue between horns and violins, then Wagner tubas and violins, seemed grounded in a profound stillness and calm.

It’s the sheer wealth of thematic material that can make the finale difficult to hold together – not to mention the exhaustion of the players – but Adrian Brown and the orchestra did remarkably well in keeping the movement inexorably on track towards the C major apotheosis with which it concludes. It was worth waiting for: the Bromley Symphony Orchestra in full cry, thundering timps, blazing brass and woodwind, and the conductor bringing them all to a good, trim close, the final crotchet lasting no more than it should - which I think is the key to a true sense of finality.

Altogether it was a magnificent achievement: Bruckner, and the audience in Bromley, had been well served.