These days we don’t get to hear Bruckner’s Te Deum (or those by Haydn, Verdi and Dvořák for that matter) all that often, a concession perhaps to our secular age. After the completion of his F minor Mass in 1868 he had suffered an increasing torrent of abuse about his symphonic work from the Viennese critics. Asked why he had returned to the writing of church music after a long absence of sixteen years, Bruckner replied, “Out of gratitude to God that my persecutors still haven’t managed to kill me off.”

Bernard Haitink © Todd Rosenberg
Bernard Haitink
© Todd Rosenberg

There was a time when some conductors thought it apt when performing Bruckner’s last symphonic statement to add on the Te Deum in an attempt to replicate Beethoven’s Choral, a move first sanctioned by the composer. Certainly, the closing pages of this short choral work, with its quartet of soloists, are as thrilling as the Ode to Joy itself. The problem with such a linkage, however, is that the very words “Te Deum” suggest an apotheosis of affirmation and belief, whereas Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is as much about doubt and uncertainty as anything else.

As if to underline our sceptical age, in this concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Bernard Haitink, the ring of faith came with the Te Deum before any expressions of agnosticism. Haitink clearly recognises that the words matter, as they do in any religious text, for much attention was paid to their particular significance. This was apparent, for instance, in the hushed sense of awe for “the Holy Ghost: the Comforter” and later, in the fourth of the five sections, for the supplication “Have mercy upon us”. At the other end of the dynamic scale Haitink unfurled all the banners for the blaze of choral sound in “Thou art the King of Glory” and right at the very end for “let me never be confounded”. There was celestial tenderness in the solo contributions from Roman Simovic in the second and fourth sections and an entirely appropriate sense of theatricality with the massive timpani rolls from Antoine Bedewi for “Thou sittest at the right hand of God”. The clear enunciation of the text by the LSO Chorus, when set against the angularity of much of the string writing, gave this performance a persuasive robustness, some of the qualities of earthy plainsong and indeed the occasional angry note of defiance. Since Haitink emphasised the moderato markings over wide stretches of this score, the ecstasy found in the deepest expressions of religious fervour was similarly tempered.

What marks Haitink out as an outstanding interpreter of Bruckner is his ability to allow the music to speak for itself, without ever hurrying it along or twisting parts of the grand design out of shape through idiosyncratic bursts of point-making. Individual lines are given all the time in the world to breathe; textures remain clean and transparent but never harsh or clinical. His approach in the opening movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony reminded me of the slow tread of pilgrims approaching the walled city glimpsed from afar, the majesty of the sound resting on the rock-solid bed of the nine double basses deployed in this performance. And when the climaxes come with the great Dutchman, they are truly towering, as was the case at the climax to this movement – all guns blazing and with the heavy artillery discharging their salvoes with controlled potency. A full century before Bruckner worked on his last symphonic work, one of the greatest religious poets writing in the English language conjured up the image of “Tyger! tyger! burning bright, in the forests of the night”. The fearful symmetry of William Blake’s vision was all there in Haitink’s conception.

At the outset of the scherzo the pizzicati brought to mind the gentle pitter-patter of falling rain before a gathering downpour. There were streaks of lightning and mighty claps of thunder to follow. Even if, in Haitink’s hands, the Scherzo didn’t display a sense of terror and the agony of spirit when faced with an opening chasm, you wouldn’t – to continue the meteorological analogy – want to be caught out in a storm like this. The trio section was delightfully nimble and fleet-footed: Herbert von Karajan’s direction to his players in the Berlin Philharmonic was that it needed to be just like a soufflé, as happened here.

The slow movement was much less angst-ridden than many I have heard, with the solo winds all sweet-toned in their solace and the strings all mellow in their consolation. Haitink almost downplayed the grinding dissonances, especially in the final orchestral outburst, finding instead the flame that burns with quiet constancy while the tempest rages outside. And so, as Bruckner’s great finale drew to its majestic close, the storm-clouds finally disappeared over the horizon and the first shafts of sunlight dappled the land beneath.

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