I love big, orchestral music, built on an epic scale with extreme dynamic range. And it doesn’t come much more epic or extreme than Bruckner’s Symphony no. 8 in C minor. But I have to admit that the very scale and range of Bruckner’s eighth presents both orchestra and conductor with significant difficulties. At the Barbican last night, the LSO and their music director-to-be Simon Rattle had moments of magnificence, without convincing me that the full extent of the work was under control.

Sir Simon Rattle © London Symphony Orchestra 2012
Sir Simon Rattle
© London Symphony Orchestra 2012
Item one: the loud brass-and-timpani-led tutti have to be truly epic. The LSO nailed them. The biggest of these was the opening of the fourth of the movement, where the trombones took the lead in driving us forward in the most thrilling fashion: it was one of the most gripping moments of any concert I’ve ever been to. There are thrills of almost as high octane in the second movement scherzo, where a rising string motif is joined by descending scales on brass and woodwind reminiscent of church bells, the whole lot then thickened out by strings and timpani. In each of the several repeats of this, the LSO hit the spot perfectly.

Item two: to provide the proper contrast with all this heavy brass stuff, the pianissimo passages must be of rare delicacy. Here again, the LSO did well. Rattle was at his most impressive at the morendo ending of the first movement, darting eyes and precise baton movements guiding the strings as they brought the level down to a barely audible whisper, without losing any coherence. Clearly, this is a conductor who can create a superb pianissimo.

Item three, the in-betweens, proved more of a challenge. Bruckner doesn’t provide the level of quirky asides that you get in a Mahler symphony, so the whole emphasis is on the construction of phrases, both on the large scale – what people call the “arc” of a movement – and on the small scale, where we want to be wowed by the particular elegance or bite of a single series of notes, as created by its dynamic contour or by subtle shifts in the timing of notes. This music may not be jazz, but none the less, there are times when individual phrases should swing.

As regards the overall arc of each movement, I had no trouble in following the first two movements, with especially well constructed transitions from scherzo to trio and back in the second. But I rather lost the plot in the third movement adagio and, after that stunning opening, in the finale: I could enjoy individual parts of these movements without understanding the differences between repeats and where it was all going. As regards individual phrases, things were also mixed. I could count a dozen wonderful moments: an excellent cantabile section in the first movement, the harp interventions and swelling double bass lines in the trio with a Sibelius-sounding re-entry scherzo, rapturous brass splits in the adagio with a superb sound from the Wagner tubas, and many others. But there were also plenty of examples where a phrase was played simply without anything special to give it lilt or lift, and although the timing within instrument groups was always top notch, the cues to hand over between sections often seemed imperfect – only by a fraction, but enough to matter.

When a programme contains a symphony that lasts well over an hour, I’m unconvinced by the idea of preceding it by a 15 minute work of a completely different character and then a 20 minute interval, as was done in this case with Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste, a virtuoso piece for brass, woodwind and an array of percussionists. There was plenty in the playing to impress – to give just one example, I was amazed by the ability of three xylophonists to play rapid fire phrases and get them together to the microsecond – but to my ears, Messiaen’s vision of the Heavenly City is a disjointed, harsh and unforgiving one. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s piano sparkled, the Chinese gongs were potent, the brass sound was hard-edged. Like a Bruckner symphony, this may be a “cathedral of sound”, but it’s a cathedral of a very different sort, and not one to which I am instinctively drawn.

Not unreasonably, the Rattle/LSO combination is a work in progress. Last night’s concert revealed moments of what I hope and trust will be the greatness to come, while highlighting that Bruckner’s eighth is a difficult work and that there’s plenty to improve.

***11