... The ending of Symphony no. 4 by Poul Ruders, to be precise – or, just as well, the ending of the first half of this concert. Regardless of what and when, it was stunning! My joy at the start of the (insanely long) interval surprised me considering that when the piece began I was unconvinced. The music strayed toward 80s horror music, or the bit in Columbo just before he asks that ‘one last question’. My fears were quickly allayed, however, once the orchestration began to produce some incredible textures. The initial eerie soundscape gave way to a stunning section in the middle of the first movement. Divisi strings playing harmonics, creating a wash for the excellently voiced organ and quirkily muted but very powerful brass entrance.

Thomas Trotter, © Adrian Burrows
Thomas Trotter,
© Adrian Burrows

It was in the second movement that the piece had really got going. The organ ramped up a little and started to produce some striking, grinding orchestral blends – crunchier than the freshest Granny Smiths. The music then built to an outstanding section of repeated, bludgeoning rhythms played out on percussion, organ and strings – amazing. It was in this movement that one of Ruder’s stylistic features began to emerge – his quoting/referencing/alluding to past styles. This is reminiscent of the thawing 80s Soviet composers – Denisov, Martinov, early Pärt, and in particular Schnittke. In Ruders’ hands, though, the effect of these allusions to past musical worlds is significantly different. By the slightest gesture of articulation or ornament, Ruder takes us through multifarious eras, styles and known pieces (I’m convinced Rhapsody in Blue appeared just before a baroque concerto) but as quickly as they appear they are subsumed by a grotesque, contemporary extension of that style – it could be taken as a manifesto for contemporary orchestral language!

The playing was outstanding; stand-in conductor Nikolaj Znaider’s massive frame dominated the orchestra. He poured over what looked like a tiny music stand and inspired crisp and precise playing. This being the UK première I wonder if Ruder, present in the audience, could have expected such a high standard from all sections, each of which had a great deal to do. Even the double-basses were conspicuous by their performance of very exposed, difficult passages. Thomas Trotter took on the practically continuous organ part and really shone. The programme note makes it clear that this was intended as an organ symphony, not a concerto – hence the near-constant presence of the massive pipes creating textures for the orchestra to fall into and extend. But audience and organisers alike couldn’t help treat this virtuosic playing as worthy of stand-alone praise, following numerous bows the enthused audience slunk away to half-time drinkies after thirty minutes that, to me, felt closer to five.

Programming contemporary orchestral music is tricky: you must choose the pieces surrounding it with something that gets bums on seats (in essence, we have to trick audiences into hearing new classical music), and normally that means choosing a very famous, well-loved piece to accompany our valiant, alive composers. The knock-on effect is that the contemporary symphony will often lose out in the audience’s affection once they hear the recognisable old favourite that, by way of contrast, makes contemporary language seem all the more inaccessible.

The grand old favourite this time was Bruckner’s Seventh – his most famous symphony, often given the sobriquet ‘The Lyric’ – but despite the piece’s fame and popularity the second half fell short of the delights of the first. I was left a little cold by this symphony, whose themes hammer home a little too insistently, leaving me actually a little irritated by their presence (methinks Bruckner doth protest too much). Aside from the piece itself it was a surprise when, with Znaider conducting from memory, the orchestra began to feel a trifle sloppy (and no-one likes a sloppy trifle). Tempos slipped and momentum was occasionally lost at crucial moments. The overall effect was a performance best described as a little lacklustre. Considering the short notice with which Znaider leapt into the conducting role, replacing soon-to-be father figure Andris Nelsons, it is entirely understandable that the edges weren’t quite as sharp as they could have been and it would be unfair not to mention the exciting sound the brass section, boosted by four fantastic Wagner tubas, consistently created – but suffice to say the 65 or so minutes felt no shorter than they were.

It may well be that the programme, not the music or performance, was at fault. The two symphonies are irreconcilably different; Ruder’s is a triumph of unusual orchestration and actually builds the greater part of the symphonic argument from its development of texture. Bruckner’s is a pure, nineteenth-century language developing melody and harmony through increasingly indulgent scoring. Moving into the different world of the second with the first still ringing in my ears I suspect biased my listening a good deal. It’s a shame not to be able to give this concert four or five stars as I suspect the orchestra, conductor, Thomas Trotter and Poul Ruders probably deserve.

***11