“They want me to write differently. Certainly I could, but I must not. How then would I stand there before Almighty God, if I followed the others and not Him?” It was after the disastrous première of his Third Symphony in 1877 that the deeply religious Anton Bruckner revised what is often called his most personal symphony, the Fifth. The orchestral version of the “Church of Faith” was not premiered until 1894, with Bruckner unable to attend due to sickness. In fact, he was never lucky enough to hear his “Fantastic” performed by an orchestra.

Vladimir Jurowski © Matthias Creutziger
Vladimir Jurowski
© Matthias Creutziger

Following some unwritten UK law, Bruckner's symphony was once again preceded by a Mozart piano concerto last night at the Royal Festival Hall. Starting with dramatic D minor waves in the double basses, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra built up a gloomy Sturm und Drang atmosphere in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 with brooding storms, reminiscent of Don Giovanni, interrupted by a secondary theme in the woodwinds, delicately embroidered by principal flautist Juliette Bausor. Yet, the dynamic swells and dark moods could have been savoured more and further exploited. Soloist Richard Goode blended into the orchestra and though not all accelerandos were convincing, his dialogue with the LPO before the cadenza in the first movement had a very honest and straightforward feeling with some sublime playing by bassoonist Jonathan Davies. In the Romanze, Goode shaped phrases with great delicacy and crafted an almost inaudible B flat at the end before storming into a lightly played Rondo. Period trumpets and timpani added some extra punch.

Jurowski waited a few moments after the interval for the audience to completely settle. Unlike his other eight symphonies, Bruckner’s Fifth opens with a slow introduction. Quiet pizzicato low strings are joined by the violins and violas to form a sostenuto melody, silence, a short, almost stupendous figure for full orchestra, silence, followed by a radiant brass chorale. Jurowski’s conducting style is still and controlled, despite some punches in the air and a little jump at the end of the first movement. There is a tension right up to the top of Jurowski's fingers, while he fluidly moves his wrists to draw phrases. This tension was also tangible in the orchestral playing over long passages, especially during the slower movements. In the Allegro and Scherzo, though, it sometimes seemed as if he lost the overall flow and drive through Bruckner’s musical lines, making it difficult to appreciate the symphony's coherence as a grand masterpiece.

True to the symphony’s “Pizzicato” nickname, the second movement starts with a bleak oboe melody, accompanied by pizzicato strings. The music builds to a series of minor climaxes cautiously drawn by Jurowski while “continually keeping something in reserve for the conclusion” as once suggested by the great Bruckner maestro Eugen Jochum. The Ländler in the Scherzo was not always light-footed, but the different themes and tempi in this restless movement were clearly delineated. Jurowski’s reading brought a careful balance, with no over-dominance from the brass, with outstanding playing from the woodwind section. The cheeky clarinet figure played by guest principal Christian Stene at the beginning of the Finale was a foretaste of the monumental fugue to come. New and already familiar themes of the first movement appear throughout all sections, but Jurowski managed to withhold the climax and built up the tension again before unleashing a breathtaking finale, red-faced brass players and raised clarinets and oboes included.