If it’s a commonplace to compare a Bruckner symphony to a “cathedral of sound”, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are many ways to assess a cathedral. You can look at the work of an individual stonemason. You can consider a feature created by some workgroup: an individual arch or buttress, perhaps. Or you can step away and cast your gaze on the whole cathedral. For last night’s performance of the Symphony no. 7 in E major at Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen, Manfred Honeck and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra were strongest when viewed from the middle of those three viewpoints.

Manfred Honeck © Sveriges Radio
Manfred Honeck
© Sveriges Radio
Ensemble was excellent for the whole symphony, with a tangible sense that the players were very comfortable with playing with each other and their conductor. The big climaxes had plenty of strength, the more so from being amplified by Berwaldhallen’s lively acoustic – despite which Honeck kept everything accurate enough to ensure that things never degenerated into mush. Ostinato strings were hushed and gentle at the beginning of the first and fourth movements, the string sound then thickening to become full and rich. Passages of woodwind ensemble and the deep solidity of Wagner tuba passages were adeptly handled, Ländler dances had the lilt that you would hope for from an Austrian conductor. However, moments of individual virtuosity were relatively few in number, given that Bruckner gives the woodwind players many chances to shine: too often, solo phrases and interjections were played straight without a great deal of shaping. And there were individual errors, most notably some trumpet hesitations at critical moments.

And the view of the whole cathedral was somewhat misty, not least because of slow tempi, which made it too easy to relax into the lushness of the moment and lose the thread of the overall symphony. A case in point was the third movement: the initial Scherzo was the most exciting playing of the evening, powerfully accented and with a strong rhythmic impulse, but then the Trio was taken down so far as to release the tension completely, whereas Bruckner only marks it “etwas langsamer” (somewhat slower). A similar pattern recurred in the fourth movement: after each of Bruckner’s typical false summits, I want the tension to start building immediately for the next climb, whereas I felt I was being allowed too much time to enjoy the view.

Jonathan Biss © Sveriges Radio
Jonathan Biss
© Sveriges Radio
The first half of the concert was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major (the “Emperor”). It’s a joyous work, and the Swedish Radio Symphony were suitably robust in the vivacious opening. The Berwaldhallen’s loud and clear acoustic makes it a lovely hall for a piano concerto, and soloist Jonathan Biss took full advantage, able to explore a good range of dynamics from whispered gentleness (the seductive lead in to the outburst of joy in the Rondo) to the heavy-footed bonhomie of the Rondo itself and some nicely executed parallel octaves in the first movement. As in the Bruckner, ensemble playing was tight throughout, and Beethoven’s modulation between keys came clearly through. The orchestra were unable to summon up an extra gear for a concluding flourish, but that didn’t overly diminish the overall effect of a happy piece of a music.