Long climbs often provide the best views. The Adagio second movement of Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony bears the tempo marking Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam… and it is very solemn and very slow indeed. But, in the company of the London Philharmonic Orchestra shepherded by Marek Janowski, when we eventally reached the summit with its famous single cymbal clash – supposedly added by the composer when he learned of the death of Richard Wagner – the vista from the mountain top was heavenly.

Marek Janowski © Felix Broede
Marek Janowski
© Felix Broede

Bruckner symphonies are often likened to cathedrals in sound, possibly down to the composer’s Catholic faith and his devotion to Bach. Instead, I hear something of the outdoors in his music, open-hearted and naive, earthy, the peasant Ländler never far away. The mountain trek analogy may be corny, but it holds true: the journey is long, sometimes taking a few dead ends, and as we turn a corner, the view can change abruptly. Polish-born Janowski is a rare visitor to London these days but he knows Bruckner inside out – music stand ushered away – and gave an invigorating account of the rugged Seventh that powered along in little over an hour.

Janowski, with his balding pate and wisps of white hair, reminds me of another fine Brucknerian, Rafael Kubelík. His conducting technique is similar too, baton gripped very lightly between two fingers but with great fluidity in his wrist flicks, carving shapes in the air. There were no great histrionics – the music doesn’t demand it – but a sense of quiet authority, Janowksi encouraging the musicians to listen to each other, balancing his forces expertly. Bruckner’s trademark tremolando strings were scaled down to pianissimo softness, cellos earnest and sinewy as the ascent began, a dark claret quality to the violins. The first movement was purposeful, the Scherzo pacy, the finale business-like. But the Adagio was the highlight, Janowski taking his time to inhale the mountain air and admire the view, solemn Wagner tubas pronouncing their verdict in approval.

It was refreshing to hear Bruckner paired with his hero, rather than yet another programme where a Mozart piano concerto precedes one of the symphonies. Here, Janowski offered a bracing reading of the overture to The Flying Dutchman, ocean spray flung from a bespattered woodwind team, before Egils Silins donned Wotan’s eyepatch for the final scene of Die Walküre. The Latvian has an imposing presence, towering over Janowski, and a granitic bass-baritone that made this particular Wotan stronger on furrowed-brow admonishment than tender father imparting a loving farewell to his disobedient daughter, Brünnhilde. It may seem difficult for a singer to instantly snap into character for a “bleeding chunk” of Wagner, yet Silins is highly experienced in the role of the god. His performance was less about character and more about rolling out a deeply impressive stentorian tone to the very back of the hall.

The real drama came from the LPO, Janowski beckoning for more juice from the violins. An oily bass clarinet gurgled before piccolo, glockenspiel and six harps flickered as the Magic Fire encircled the entire orchestra, leaving it stranded on Wagner’s mountain-top from where Bruckner – an unlikely hero – rescued it after the interval.