At first sight there seems little to suggest a meaningful pairing of works by Sibelius and Bruckner, though the Finnish composer was himself trained in the German tradition and indeed the first performance of his revised violin concerto took place in Berlin in 1905, with none other than Richard Strauss conducting. However, these two contemporaries shared at least one important characteristic: they were both plagued by intense self-doubt. Memories of the disastrous premiere of the original D minor concerto and the need to rework it led Sibelius to abandon attempts at writing a second violin concerto a decade or so later (though some of the material resurfaced later in the Humoresques) and to burn the manuscripts of an eighth symphony.

Christian Tetzlaff © Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Can Sibelius take too much intensity without cracking under the strain? It was both a harbinger and an omen of what was to come that Christian Tetzlaff, in this performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati, began applying the pressure from the moment the soloist’s voice is first heard in an arching phrase above muted strings. Just minutes later, and before the extended cadenza, one of the strings snapped. With consummate professionalism and hardly missing a note, instruments were rapidly exchanged with the leader. However, the difference in tone was immediately apparent and it took Tetzlaff some time to recover.

Great works in musical literature are open to widely differing interpretations. In addition to the fiery passion that Tetzlaff was keen to unlock even in quieter passages, straining almost every sinew in his body, there was a rhythmical waywardness which was unsettling. With a very wide vibrato in the slow movement, it was like being serenaded by a gypsy fiddler. Beguiling it certainly was, especially given the considerable dynamic range, but there was little regard for any windswept reverie or icy chill of a northern terrain. Come the finale, the phrasing was almost operatic, the balladeer standing below in the street with a mission to implore and impress. It didn’t help that the composer’s marking Ma non tanto qualifying the Allegro was largely ignored, taking the movement away from what Sibelius had himself described as “a danse macabre across the Finnish wastelands”.

Tetzlaff’s partner in crime clearly saw the work in a similarly big-boned fashion. Ticciati used a full complement of strings and devoted much care to a symphonic treatment of the score, drawing out every ounce of expressive richness and weight from these players. By way of contrast, the woodwind, both as solo instruments and as a choir, which often provide key moments of transparency and counterpoint, were curiously reticent. Far more problematic were the repeatedly raw and angry contributions from the brass. Arresting and at times quite terrifying though all this was, there was a mismatch with the cushion of dark and woody sound coming from the burnished LPO strings.

When he came to write his Seventh Symphony, what must have been going through Bruckner’s mind? Given his obsessive tendencies, including what today we know as OCD, and his constant obsession with numbers, he probably indulged in some superstitious mysticism associated with the number seven. As it happens, this work has been lucky in one decisive respect: it has turned out to be his most popular symphonic work.

Watching Ticciati on the rostrum with his frequently hunched shoulders I couldn’t help feeling that Bruckner might well have called out, “Junger Mann, entspannen Sie sich!” (= Young man, relax!). Timings are only one part of the story: at exactly 60 minutes this Seventh was quite brisk throughout and the Adagio in particular, with its key instruction “very solemn and slow”, lacked the qualities of seamlessness and timelessness which prove so difficult for younger and enthusiastic conductors to achieve. This movement, written as a tribute to the dying Wagner, whose sound-world Bruckner so obviously sought to emulate, was often urged along, as though Ticciati was wary of allowing it to unfold with a sense of inevitability. The scherzo was excitable in temperament, light on its feet, declaiming its rusticity and playfulness; the trio section featured some delicious trumpet detail; the finale scampered towards its close without an apparent care in the world.

Yet there were aspects of Ticciati’s reading to make me think that it will surely evolve in years to come. The transitions were all handled smoothly, especially in the opening movement; there was no over-fussiness in the phrasing and no unnecessary point-making. The warmth of the string playing was very welcome and the colours in his palette conveyed vibrancy and variety. Ultimately, this was not a Bruckner for the soul but one for the haptic senses. The physicality over wide stretches was palpable, the brass often leaping out of the textures with an unbridled ferocity, not least in the great climax towards the end of the Adagio, replete with triangle and cymbal clash.

***11