All football fans, from childhood upwards, have at some point imagined their fantasy team – Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, whoever. My fantasy orchestra, on the basis of last night’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major by Bruckner, would include the brass section of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. All of it.

Sakari Oramo © Jan-Olaf Wedin | RSPO
Sakari Oramo
© Jan-Olaf Wedin | RSPO

Bruckner is a great vehicle for brass players to strut their stuff and the generous reverberation time of Stockholm’s Konserthuset makes it a great place to do it. Bruckner’s go-to method is to start the swell of a musical wave with strings and then to thicken the wave with brass before the crest breaks and the music relaxes. Sakari Oramo is the RSPO’s Chief Conductor and he clearly knows how to play the hall. When one of the big chorales of the first movement would come to a close, Oramo would give the ensuing rest just that little bit more time than usual to allow us to wallow in the rich harmonics of that big brass sound. But it wasn’t just the big ensemble pieces: the trombone section was tighter than tight on tricky little ornaments, while I was repeatedly wowed by the shaping of timbre and dynamics in the horn solos by principal Martin Schöpfer. There’s a horn discord in the first movement – two horns playing notes a semitone apart – that came through with delicious acidity.

Oramo was a reassuring presence on the podium: more a genial tour guide through Bruckner’s music than a propulsive leader. He is impeccably turned out and well-mannered; his movements are crisp, no-nonsense and obviously intelligible. His reading of Bruckner with the RSPO was totally different from what I’m accustomed to – the polar opposite of my last Bruckner, with Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden. There was no giant, overwhelming string sweep, no relentless surge of climax after climax. The RSPO produced a detailed string sound of great clarity which allowed us to hear every note, particularly effective in the pianissimo pizzicati which open the work and recur sporadically during its progress. Oramo’s tempi were by no means leisurely – the first movement certainly didn’t drag at any point – but still, the music always seemed to be given space and time to breathe. As a result, many details of the composition became clear, especially those where Bruckner takes small fragments of melody and repeats them in a different context, while the overarching structure of the sections of each movement also made sense. At eighty minutes, this is a long work and there’s a lot of structure to wrap your head around.

At the end of Bruckner 5, the conductor has to achieve a difficult balance. Build up the intensity too soon, and the orchestra is left with nowhere to go – the music has reached maximum tension and there’s nothing to do but sustain it. Leave it too late, and the music that precedes the climax seems to drag, while the climax itself seems to come out of nowhere and end unsatisfyingly too soon. For my taste, Oramo strayed uncomfortably towards the latter, the close of the fourth movement not living up to the promise of everything that had preceded it.

Perhaps, with a Finnish conductor and a Swedish orchestra, this style of performance is a Nordic one. At various points, I did find myself thinking “this sounds just like Sibelius”, generally followed by “actually, I really like Sibelius”. I left the hall having thoroughly enjoyed the concert and fascinated to have seen Bruckner played in a way so different from my expectations.

****1