In the 1880s in Vienna there was crazy conflict between supporters of Brahms, and the Wagnerians who raised Bruckner as their mascot. Although Brahms said some unpleasant things about Bruckner and his music, the two composers were not personally in the vanguard of this vituperative battle - that role was left to the likes of the famous critic Eduard Hanslick, for the Brahmsians, and Hugo Wolf for the Brucknerians. Although in retrospect this war seems quite mad, when the works of the two composers are juxtaposed as they were at this concert, the vast gulf between what they thought a large scale orchestral work should be becomes quite blatant to the ear, though not quite so easy to pin down in words.

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra © Richard Cannon
Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© Richard Cannon

The filling in the rather severe sandwich that constituted this programme was provided by the encore from the two soloists, Julia Fischer and Daniel Müller-Schott, as sweet a filling of virtuoso display as you could wish for in Halverson’s Passacaglia on a theme by Handel, received with uproarious enthusiasm by the audience. After the hefty weight of Brahms' Double Concerto, it was indeed a welcome relief to hear something played just for fun. Although Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann, “If it is at all successful, it might give us some fun”, there’s not a lot of fun to be found in this mighty concerto, Brahms’ last major orchestral work. It is Brahms at his most muscular and strenuous, full of the musical equivalent of push ups, sit ups, stomach crunches and rope climbs. The orchestra’s brief forte opening statement was announced with indomitable vigour, whose expressive strength was taken up and even amplified by the solo cello’s recitative. Even when Brahms is being lyrical and melancholy in this work, passages often as not given to the solo cello, it sounded strenuous, as though the emotion is being wrung out of a reluctant heart by sheer force.

The orchestral playing was always up to the challenge, indeed it was excellent throughout, and in both the opening movement and the finale the LPO provided the requisite heavily wrought and energetic backdrop against which the cello and violin conduct their passionate and intimate conversation. The soloists also presented the work as a very serious and, for the most part, unsmiling business, but the sheer variety of their interaction - from stand-offish independence to complete togetherness - was wonderfully characterised. From where I was sitting, Müller-Schott’s expressive cello playing registered more strongly than Fischer’s lively but less immediately communicative contribution, although the overall impression was of faultless command of the music.

The slow movement presents one of those meandering autumnal Brahms themes, of deceptive simplicity, where a little softness is introduced into the narrative. But there is also restraint, a firm hold kept on the form and expressive palette, and the texture, even when most lightly scored, is always consummately crafted. What a contrast with Bruckner’s risky ventures into sudden, passionate rhapsody and his frequent general pauses (that gave the work its nickname, die Pausensymphonie). His exploration of strange orchestral textures, along with the rugged, intemperate interpolations from the brass, are issues that the conductor needs to weld coherently. As in his previous excellent performances with the LPO of Bruckner’s First Symphony, Jurowski’s commitment, conviction and detailed knowledge of the work was apparent, the players responding with an equally committed performance, clarity of articulation and transparency of texture. Especially sure-footed was John Ryan’s horn playing in the rhapsodic passage in the first movement development, where he reiterates the opening motive. Ryan impressed again with his expressive solos in the Adagio, where he was also assigned the perilous role of bringing the movement to a close - so perilous for horn players of Bruckner’s day that in later versions he gave the passage to clarinet, greatly to the movement’s detriment.

Some Brahmsian restraint seemed to live on into the symphony. The strings took off into rhapsodic fantasy in their continuation of the initial theme of the first movement, but sounded just a touch too literal. This slight hint of inhibition could have arisen from the precision of execution which was occasionally apparent elsewhere in the performance. Much was conscientiously done, including all the repeats in the first part of the Scherzo and the Trio, which sounds heavenly first time round but seems a little less welcome on repetition. The Adagio, however, rose to the level of sheer poetry, deeply moving and beautifully proportioned.

Jurowski’s espousal of this first version of Bruckner’s symphony was at its most courageous in the Finale, during the lengthy course of which Bruckner wanders into the strangest of byways and the innocent listener might be forgiven for wondering how the symphony was proceeding to its ultimate destination - if indeed, there remained such a thing. But once you get the hang of the fact that these byways are there for the sheer delight of them, then patience is rewarded and you can join with Bruckner’s elation in his startlingly abrupt final bars of repeated fanfares, where a rhythm pervasive in the first movement combines to tie the whole bundle together. But I fear had Brahms been there, he would have left the hall, exasperated beyond tolerance, long before the enthusiastic applause.

****1