Bartók and Bruckner make for an unusual combination. However, we do well to remember that when the progenitor of what were derided as “symphonic boa-constrictors” died in 1896, he and his compatriot Bartók had been citizens of the same country for 15 years. What else binds these two Austro-Hungarians together?

Alan Gilbert
© Peter Hundert

First and foremost, there is a rich stream of lyrical expressiveness which creates long, arching melodic lines that move effortlessly from the earthy to the ethereal. Then there are the tributes to folksong, manifold in a nation-state with one of the greatest examples of ethnic diversity ever, formalised in the case of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto in the “tempo di verbunkos” marking for the first movement, and in the hints of the dance-like Ländler in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

Augustin Hadelich, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester’s soloist and now also its Associate Artist, has long lived with this Bartók concerto, with which he won the Indianapolis competition in 2006. His superb intonation together with absolute respect for note values and dynamic shadings were admirably on display in this performance. Approaches in the first movement can range from the romantic and rhapsodic to the gritty and uncompromising. Hadelich, ably supported by Alan Gilbert, now well into his first season in charge of the Hamburg orchestra, moved things along quite urgently. Dramatic contrasts were highlighted, the many transitions expertly negotiated, the flecks of bright colour providing additional tonal allure in the complex weave of the orchestral tapestry. He was equally impressive in the dream-like delicacies of the slow movement in which fairyland spirits dance gracefully before the inner eye; in the finale the spooky elements of the composer’s “night music” were conveyed through a sweetly singing upper line and furious double-stopping which gave full expression to the instrument’s percussive potential. His encore of Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, in an arrangement for solo violin by Ruggiero Ricci, provided the softest of links to the whispered start of the Bruckner in the second half.

Gilbert can certainly get his orchestra to play with power and conviction. There was an impressive weight and unanimity, especially from the strings, as the great Adagio unfolded. The crystal-clear acoustics allowed much inner detail to come through, notably in the magical dovetailing of flutes, Wagner tubas and clarinets in the finale. And yet in these surroundings aspects of Bruckner’s work can so easily be undersold: not much mystery and not much majesty on this occasion. The acoustic downsides are difficult to overlook: a solo trumpet leaps out at you without warning, the woodwind are unavoidably spotlit and string entries can often sound unappealingly sharp-edged.

To be sure, Gilbert is not a conductor to indulge in any sentimentality: emotion had little place in this reading. It is certainly possible to place Bruckner’s architecture and the cogency of the symphonic argument at the heart of an interpretation. Despite having recently recorded this work, Gilbert’s approach never quite persuaded me that he had the full measure of the score. He offered a series of emphatic statements in the outer movements, the sharply-accentuated brass commanding frequent attention. Yet these individual sentences rarely flowed into longer paragraphs and with less than expert musical punctuation the grand design was left to look after itself. Textures often gleamed but they rarely glowed with that special light from within that helps shape a transcendent quality in Bruckner’s work.