Extraordinary things happen in St Barnabas Church, Ealing. On a couple of occasions, 32 pianists have played 32 Beethoven piano sonatas over one weekend, and every so often the building is host to Ealing Symphony Orchestra, who dare to embark on programmes that feature works you just will not hear anyone else perform – first public performances of Ives’ Orchestral Set no. 3, and William Alwyn’s Violin Concerto, for example. Tonight’s UK première of a completion of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 9 by Nors Josephson was no exception: although completed in 1992, it has only received a handful of performances worldwide.

John Gibbons
John Gibbons

In that respect the programming is adventurous, but the structure of the programmes is charmingly conservative. The Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle might find a four-movement version of Bruckner’s immense Ninth Symphony enough to fill a whole concert; not so the Ealing Symphony Orchestra with John Gibbons, who presented a thoroughly traditional menu of overture, concerto and symphony to the large, loyal audience in this enormous ecclesiastical space. The acoustic is not bad, a bit muddy, favouring the lower frequencies, the upper range sometimes struggling to penetrate. No-one would be surprised that the violins did not sound quite like the Berlin Phil, but in fact there was playing from the cellos and basses, the woodwind, and above all from the horns and Wagner tubas that would have been a credit to any orchestra. The quartet of horns was raised on a platform and shone out above the orchestra but it was a pity that, having hired a quartet of Wagner tubas, they were left almost totally invisible somewhere at the back of the orchestra. It’s always inspiring to be able to see the brass.

Smetana’s overture was given a rather deliberate performance, not quite rising to the élan and brilliance that would fulfil its function as a lively curtain-raiser. Yuki Negishi’s performance of Mozart’s limpid, gently melancholy Piano Concerto no. 23 was a dream throughout, with moderate tempi and beautifully nuanced phrasing – this was exceptional Mozart playing. The orchestra provided a steady accompaniment and at times, as in the last section of Adagio, were inspired to playing that responded fully to the poignant simplicity displayed by their soloist.

The shock of the opening of the Bruckner symphony was just how good it sounded: Gibbons set off at a fairly quick tempo (not really maintained later in the movement), with a fine pianissimo tremolo on the strings, and the horns sounding glorious in the reverberant acoustic. The music builds to a shattering climax, a great octave drop, and a wind-down of mysterious pizzicatos that usher in the lyrical second theme group. In some performances the inner voices of the contrapuntal texture of this highly expressive music come through, variously highlighted; but in this acoustic and with slightly weaker upper strings the sound was more blended. The three theme groups come round again in the second part, expanded and with increased power, till the blazing coda of visionary fanfares brings the movement to a close. Though some of the movement had lacked quite the extremity of dramatic contrast necessary for it to speak with full power, Gibbons paced this coda faultlessly and the orchestra rose terrifically to the occasion.

In the Scherzo and Trio it is as if spectral elves and great, brutal clumping giants are involved in a sepulchral dance. The little descending dancey figure on the oboe was played with just the right combination of lilt and menace, and the reverberant acoustic transformed the frantic triple-forte tuttis into a massive hellish cacophony. The solemn Adagio that follows moves the music into still deeper levels of spiritual unease, contrasted with occasional glimpses of something heavenly and periods of weary resignation. After the opening theme there comes a descending chorale of Wagner tubas – and how magnificently they played this theme, Bruckner’s ‘farewell to life’. The strings excelled in the lyrical second theme where the sound was full and deeply eloquent. After the grinding dissonance of the climax, the stately chords on Wagner tubas were accompanied by violins stepping quietly up and down around the E major triad, each note separated – it’s a way of playing the passage that added an air of grief-laden solemnity, out of which arose the haunting long-held E major chord on horns and tubas with which the movement ends.

The completion of Bruckner’s finale, of which more than two-thirds exists in some form or other, has been attempted by various composers and musicologists. Varying degrees of documentation are associated with these versions, but it is hard to come by much commentary on Nors Josephson’s work. Even tonight’s programme note writer (double-bassist Dominic Nudd), who had elsewhere provided very full notes, seemed flummoxed by this finale. In the event, Josephson’s completion proved quite effective in providing a context to present much of the work that Bruckner’s persistent struggle against illness managed to complete. I liked the orchestra’s strength of attack in the jagged descending figures of the first theme, and even more the weak, repetitive emptiness expressed in their playing of the second theme. The great chorale suffered from a failure of the trumpets to shine forth above the bustling triplets of the orchestral accompaniment – like the rest of the brass, they would have benefited from joining their hornist colleagues on a raised platform. The strange, angular fugue that constitutes the main theme recapitulation didn't quite maintain its wild, adventurous quality in its working-out. At its close Bruckner introduces a wonderfully assertive horn theme, with a rising triplet – the glory of the Ealing horns demonstrated once again.

All completers are faced with the problem that Bruckner’s legacy left unanswered: how to finish. There are some brief sketches and anecdotes for the coda, that Josephson doesn’t appear to have used, but he feeds various rather diffuse elements into it, the most striking of which is a reminiscence of the first movement horn-call/coda that the orchestra had played so well over an hour previously. Of the various codas I’ve heard, I didn’t find tonight’s the most convincing. But it’s always a privilege to hear a four-movement Ninth, as it gives a rare opportunity to hear Bruckner's intended symphonic proportions, and one’s evaluation of the various completions requires at least the opportunity to compare them in live performance. All praise to John Gibbons and the Ealing SO, and indeed to Nors Josephson, who was present at the concert.