A rare visit to London by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, with their Music Director Dennis Russell Davies, saw them bring a “to the manner born” performance of the Sixth Symphony by the Austrian composer who inspired its name. Before that, the concert opened with two works from the 18th century by Gluck and Mozart, the former arranged by Bruckner’s great hero, Wagner.

Melvyn Tan © Sheila Rock
Melvyn Tan
© Sheila Rock

The work in question was the overture to the opera Iphigénie en Aulide, given the plush romantic ‘improvement’ treatment, albeit in a relatively restrained way. Not that Wagner was a critic of Gluck, far from it. Like Berlioz before him, he was a great fan of this most influential of 18th-century opera composers. Many of Wagner’s innovations, moving opera towards his vision of the ‘music drama’ and away from the conventions of opera seria, can be traced back to Gluck’s late ‘Reform’ operas. The additional Wagner heft fitted this occasion and the sound and traditions of the Linz orchestra. The performance was lively and accurate, bringing out the particular understated intensity of the opera, making one wish that Gluck had written more orchestral music later in his career.

The performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, K488 that followed was a patchy affair, but full marks should be given to the orchestra and Davies for their wonderfully poised and responsive accompaniment. It was their soloist, Melvyn Tan, who proved to be somewhat out of tune with the style of the performance. He seemed to be approaching the concert grand he was faced with as if it was a period instrument, producing a staccato line throughout and very light pedalling. It increasingly became apparent he was limiting his expressive range to reproduce the sound of a fortepiano. This produced some oddly dry moments, particularly in the miraculous slow movement, which was lacking in subtly and magic. This approach worked better with the fireworks of the finale, but overall this was not a performance to be treasured.

The main work of the evening, Bruckner’s rarely played Sixth Symphony, completely dispelled any doubts posed by the Mozart. This is an elusive piece, whose tone is less lofty than the three great works that followed it. It seems to hark back to his early symphonies with more light-hearted, dance-like rhythms and perky melodies. But in the mix there are darker moments with snarling brass and twisted harmonies, as well as some heart-stopping expansive melodies that point towards the lyrical style of his Seventh.

What was remarkable about the performance over all was how 'just right' the sound of the orchestra was. There was a homogeneity in the tuttis that completely made sense of the orchestration. All departments had a softness of timbre. The most obvious evidence of this was the brass, which produced a perfect weight of sound while having a warm roundness of tone. At no point during the great climaxes did they harangue the listener as is often the case.

Davies found a clear path through the tricky tempo relationships and the outer movements were well shaped and satisfying. It was in the glorious slow movement, surely one of Bruckner’s best, that everything came together in the most tastefully sumptuous way. The burnished climax in that movement will ring in my ears for a long time to come.