The boom in Bruckner in recent months has been quite phenomenal. Seasoned concert-goers have told me that they cannot remember a time when the composer has received such wide-spread performance in this country and looking at forthcoming programmes, this seems set to continue. This performance was marginally derailed by the unexpected illness of the scheduled conductor Daniel Harding, necessitating the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes to step in and conduct Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor from the piano, and Claus Peter Flor to conduct Bruckner’s Third.

Claus Peter Flor © Peter Rigaud
Claus Peter Flor
© Peter Rigaud
This concert opened the LSO’s Artist Portrait on Andsnes. K466 is indisputably a masterpiece; soaked in dramatic tension from the opening, it is one of Mozart’s most atmospheric pieces with a deep seam of unrest – conjured by D minor, used more famously in the the hell-fire Commendatore scene at the end of Don Giovanni – that gives way intermittently to flashes of playful whimsy and humour. Andsnes did not seem fazed by stepping into the breach and slipped back and forth between roles without effort. It helps, of course, when you know a piece as well as Andsnes knows this concerto, which he played in his first performance with a professional orchestra. Andsnes’ technique was impeccable; cascading magnificently in particular on the cadenza at the end of the first movement. His interpretation is clearly a very personal one and was slightly too meditative and introspective for my liking – the piece requires a degree of flashiness that I felt was lacking in Andsnes’ account, noticeably in the first movement, a passivity that occasionally affected the balance with the orchestra. Where his interpretation seemed most successful was in the Romanze, the gentle melodies of which seemed more in harmony with his milder approach. There was little to criticise in the LSO’s playing; the deeper strings were noticeable for a keen richness and the woodwind were on consistently strong form, reacting well to Andsnes’ playing in the second movement.

Harding had programmed the first version (1873) of Bruckner’s Third, but under Flor’s baton, we were given the more common final version (1889). The history of the piece is legendary – Bruckner met his idol, Wagner, offered him the dedication of either the Second or the Third, and Wagner chose the Third, apparently impressed by the brass (alas, the terrific anecdote of Wagner and Bruckner getting sozzled on beer afterwards was not mentioned in the programme notes). Bruckner was by all accounts an incompetent conductor, at least of his own works, and his inadequacies combined with an anti-Wagner barrel of critics to cause a disastrous and traumatising première.

Flor’s approach succeeded in many respects and was different enough for the performance to be not just enjoyable, but interesting as well. There were initial wobbles – the orchestra seemed to lack confidence and coherence in the first few minutes and it was a little bit smudged, but between them managed to get back into some form of unity pretty quickly. Flor made much of the drama of the piece – the first movement was taken more slowly than is common and in lengthy pauses he built up a very satisfying tension. The brass managed to bring an edge of feeling to some fine technical skill – wonderfully long extended notes that seemed to hover endlessly. Phrasing was carefully and distinctly treated.

The second movement, supposedly solemn, was played less feirerlich than expected, but I again accepted the compromise of solemnity for drama. The Scherzo was dispatched with both fire and grace – a quicker tempo gave a real drive to the movement. The Allegro is tricky and is never truly comfortable to listen to, but Flor again milked it for as much drama as he could, highlighting jarring contrasts within the music which made the return to that marvellous theme from the first movement all the more majestic. There was some magnificent playing from many quarters that highlighted the lush writing for the strings, particularly in the final few moments of the symphony. Timpanist Antoine Bedewi was almost sensational – his playing cut through and over the brass with both punch and colour. There was slightly too much podium noise from Flor; not quite at the level of Celibidache's shouting, but the audible stamping was distracting.

Flor’s interpretation will not be for everyone, and it is clear that the performance suffered slightly from the late change in conductor. But what he gave was distinct, taut and colourful. I would be very interested to hear more Bruckner from him.

****1