Two major composers’ music was juxtaposed in last week’s subscription concerts of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Principal Guest Conductor, Donald Runnicles. The compositional styles of Olivier Messiaen and Anton Bruckner could hardly be more different; yet, as this concert proved, there are also connecting links between them. Both were devout Catholics and both worked as professional organists: Messiaen at the Sainte-Trinité church in Paris and Bruckner in the small Austrian town of Sankt Florian. Their sincere faith influenced how they composed, such as in the way they reflected on the passing of time in their music.

Donald Runnicles © Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly

Les Offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings), the first published work by the barely 22-year old Messiaen, already boldly claims many of the hallmarks of his later, mature style. Best described perhaps as a triptych of a musical altarpiece, it consists of three, clearly distinguished parts. The most challenging of these is the final one, lasting approximately half the duration of the composition (although taking up less than two pages in the score): an extremely slow and quiet meditation in music, performed by divisi (divided) violin and viola parts. The sublime timelessness of this section depends on the consistently maintained continuity of tone colours and musical lines, free from any audible signs of technical execution, such as bow changes and string crossings. Playing the notes of this final part is not particularly hard for accomplished musicians; the extreme difficulty lies in creating an ethereal atmosphere of almost floating sonorities, which radiate from the delicate harmonic changes of the final minutes – a challenge that was not fully met on this occasion.

More rewarding was the wholesome performance of Bruckner’s mighty Symphony no. 7 in E major. Over the barely audible tremolo of the violins, the solemn opening melody of the first movement began on the cellos and a solo horn with suitably lean elegance. The orchestra’s size was boosted significantly for this work and the large body of strings created a majestic sound, especially in the powerful final section (Sehr ruhig) of the first movement, where the initially quiet and slow coda gradually gained pace and volume all the way to the climactic final bars, strongly reminiscent of the imposing ending to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Not less than thirty bars of a single harmony, an E major chord, without any chromatic notes at all; a bold, if exceptionally conservative finish for a work written in the early 1880s.

Four so-called Wagner tubas (instruments created at Wagner’s request for his Ring cycle) introduced the theme of the slow movement, adding a unique colour to the orchestral sound. This movement was conceived as a tribute to Wagner, and the excellent quartet of Wagner tubas played a prominent role. Runnicles, firmly in charge throughout the night, mapped the massive 25-minute long trajectory of the movement with calm gestures. With his vast experience in conducting late-Romantic orchestral music, he never seemed to waste time for unnecessary actions. His beat was as easy to follow as the musical direction that he indicated. He trusted his musicians to play freely, but every now and then, brought out a melodic line or instrumental group with a small hand signal. It was most satisfactory, as he allowed the formidable cymbal clash at the climax of the slow movement to resonate throughout the hall, a late (but usually embraced) addition to the score. 

The Scherzo is perhaps the best known movement of the symphony, on account of its simple trumpet melody, repeated later dozens of times by a number of instruments, in different volumes and meters (speeds). Not for the first time in this performance, Runnicles let the brass section roar into their full might; an effect that oscillated between grandiose and (occasionally) vulgar. The brass, particularly the trombones, appeared to be too loud in the balance several times in the last movement as well. The confronting density and volume of their sound, intentional as it may have been, felt simply overpowering at times. This was not the case, however, in the final minutes of the symphony, where the orchestral tutti led to a rousing finish.

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