Late Bruckner symphonies are undoubtedly red-letter diary events, particularly with a conductor of the reputation Andris Nelsons carries these days. The young Latvian, clearly well suited to the drama and power of Bruckner, drove a deeply moving performance of the Ninth Symphony which was turned with utmost care and conviction from terror to solace.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

The tone was set by the dark tread of the opening brass calls, echoing back and forth across the long row of horns, Wagner tubas, trumpets, trombones and tuba ranged along the back of the orchestra. The stillness of the opening moments, and the wonderfully slender sound of those horn calls was quickly replaced by the blaze of the whole section, reinforced for the occasion with a bumper player for each of the horns, trumpets and trombones. Nelsons, himself an erstwhile trumpeter, handled the brass with masterly attention to both detail and colour, shaping phrases lovingly while balancing the section to create the richest of golden glows. The strings found a similarly pleasing balance between richness of colour and careful attention to articulation. Nelsons tended to smooth over the corners between Bruckner’s great musical paragraphs, engineering subtle variations in tempo to even out the musical line. This never threatened to reduce the intensity of the sound, but offered a listener-friendly guide through the symphony in bringing such a sense of cogency to its complex architecture.

The second movement tiptoed into view with the lightest of brushes of bow on string before erupting into a particularly brutal account of the scherzo’s main theme. At each opportunity, Nelsons would lunge forward with arms outstretched to demand more of his timpanist and brass players. They were happy to oblige, such that the end of the movement was blindingly violent in its sweeping three-beat pulse. The softer middle passages of the movement, by contrast, were breezy and light of foot in their delicate woodwind figures.

The richness of the orchestral sound came into its own in the slow movement. Chief protagonists in this were the wonderful quartet of Wagner tubas, whose soft-edged playing brought real magic into the symphony, and the Philharmonia strings, who could often be seen to be turning and playing to one another amid some tumultuous tremolo. Nelsons fully embraced the vast soundscape and allowed each uncomfortable discord to hang in the air before ploughing onwards, brilliantly engineering the supreme anguish and despair at the climax of the movement. After a terrifying, spine-chilling last brass tutti, the last pages were slow, sighing and accepting. It was deeply moving, and fully deserving of the magical prolonged silence which followed the last note.

Placing a Mozart piano concerto adjacent to a Bruckner symphony is a popular programming gambit. Paul Lewis playing K595, the last of the composer’s 27, was a fine prelude to Bruckner’s final symphony, though few would pretend it is the greatest concerto in the repertoire. It is relatively free of pianistic fireworks until the finale, and can often lack the sparkling charm and wit of the best of Mozart concertos. That said, Lewis found great delight in intricate runs in partnership with flute and oboe soloists in the third movement and the lightness of the slow movement permitted some wonderful chamber music between piano and the string principals in its middle section. The sense of intimacy required for this music was not lost, despite even the pared-down strings being spread over perhaps 25 metres on stage. It was a good-humoured and elegant opener to an otherwise stirring concert.