There was a gracious ease, a lovely relationship of intimates, as David Kim, concertmaster, took on the role of soloist for Bach’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in E major in this Philadelphia Orchestra program. The unshowy but satisfying performance made me reflect that the pre-19th-century soloist is more team-player than heroic individualist; although the soloist has a distinct line, it is not on a different order of scale to the orchestra’s, as it is in later music. Kim was, actually and musically, one of them and there was a palpable sense of unity from the first in the delightful first movement Allegro. The Adagio was clear and purely intoned  but here, Kim could have evoked deeper emotions; it certainly didn’t sing as much as I might have hoped. A surer feel to the final Allegro assai, with great attention paid to the swells and eddies of sound, and a beautifully sustained last note, brought the concerto to a satisfying end.

Yannick Nézet-Seguin © Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Seguin
© Hans van der Woerd

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has a special affinity for Bruckner. He describes a sense of transcendence in his work, a communication of something other-worldly. Spirituality is a word that often crops in relation to Bruckner’s last finished symphony, his Eighth, composed in 1887. All four movements could be read as a spiritual journey, of the more arduous kind. This is surely the ‘selva oscura’ – the dark forest where one longs for light, rather than lightness itself. It goes as near to despair as might be without ever getting there: Bruckner's sense of ultimate divine order and harmony is too great.

But still, there is precious little carefree lightness in the work. Even the scherzo with its refrains of tremolo strings – more nervous tension than skittishness – is indicative of the mood as a whole. Epics such as the Eighth need careful handling. A work so long can feel diffuse; so arduous that it can wear on the spirits. The Philadelphia Orchestra kept up the emotional intensity and impressive musicianship from the enigmatic opening to the blazing end, an end which Nézet-Séguin envisages as "all the bells of the churches in the world ringing at the same time".

Might, ardour, fear, trembling, gentleness, the orchestra showed itself alive to the timbres and tones of these emotions. There were mighty constructions of whole edifices of sound – terrific brass – which had a compelling urgency about them. There was the most fiercely aggressive pizzicato section in the second movement that I’ve ever heard. Those tremolo refrains in the scherzo were sensitively modulated; there seemed to be an increasing edge of desperation every time they returned. After moments of translucent delicacy in the third movement Adagio, there was a positively scorching climax: the cymbals seemed to give off heat. It was quite exciting to hear the collective effect of the strings being relentlessly pounded at the start of the final movement. Music as spectacle – awe-inspiring, exciting, fearsome, terrible (hair flying off a cello’s bow just added to it all) – is a joy to watch as well as hear, and for all the harmony of the final resolution, we know, quite rightly so, that it didn’t come cheap. Great music never does. Nézet-Séguin's Bruckner was a homage to the ardour of the journey.