Bruckner’s transcendental Eighth Symphony is without doubt one of the grandest journeys from darkness to light since Beethoven’s Fifth. Musical fragments – lyrical woodwind passages, powerful brass moments, climaxes followed by delicate melodies – that can, when put together correctly, lead to a gripping, redemptive finale. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kirill Karabits, delivered a decent performance with some rays of hope and desperation, but also a few problems constructing the important overall arc at The Anvil in Basingstoke.

Kirill Karabits © Sasha Gusov
Kirill Karabits
© Sasha Gusov

The symphony was preceded by a piano concerto. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart finished his Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major only a few days before giving the first performance. Following common practice during Mozart’s time, Robert Levin could easily have led the orchestra from the piano. The relationship between piano and orchestra in the composer’s last chamber-like concerto, orchestrated with clarinets instead of oboes and without trumpet or timpani, is rather close, but Levin extended this intimacy even further by playing during the tutti opening and improvising accompaniments throughout. He also cued the joyful entries of the woodwind principals, using his body language. The orchestra gave the Adagio a feeling of deep sadness, thoughtful strings and a lonely flute expressed a nostalgia that is not often found in Mozart’s oeuvre. Unfortunately, Levin’s playing felt a bit stagnant and he appeared to have problems adjusting to the Steinway which did not seem to respond the way he necessarily wanted. Melancholy reappeared in the Allegro, but was answered by jolly strings and woodwind staccatos, goading the piano to a final frolic.

Bruckner said about the revelatory finale of his Eighth, "Hallelujah!… The Finale is the most significant movement of my life." It is the last coda Bruckner ever composed and brings a transfigured symphonic journey to its end, combining themes from the work’s earlier movements. The Allegro starts with a swelling horn tone, grippingly played by the LSO's Angela Barnes, various fragments (themes) are introduced by the strings and the oboe which gradually come together and lead in what the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler described as a “battle of demons” to the inevitable annunciation of death. While the strings sounded a bit flat throughout the symphony, the brass, especially the trombones, rose to the occasion and delivered a breathtaking climax. The Scherzo could have asked for more verve; the main theme “Deutscher Michel” (a figure representing the German character) wants to sleep, but finds no rest and, in the end, turns back. Karabits’ inconspicuous conducting saw the symphony lose its red threat here, the tempo often failed to make headway during accelerandos.

The Adagio is characterised by two contrasting themes: a contrasting melody heart-rendingly played by the cellos and a brass chorale led by bright Wagner tubas. It culminates in a glittering climax – chapeau to the triangle and cymbal players who made their only appearance here and enjoyed the rest of the symphony sitting between the timpani and bassoons. The reminiscences of all themes from the previous movements in the finale are interrupted by pauses and inaction, letting it seem even more disjointed than the other movements, but as Robert Simpson has pointed out: "[they] have their rightful place in its massive deliberations, and it is a grave mistake to suppose that the structure is weakened by them; they are the open spaces in the cathedral". Karabits was not always able to use these pauses to the performance’s advantage, but the Bournemouth strings flourished in this transfiguration, while the outstanding brass delivered a redemptive finale in which the “deutsche Michel” arrives home from his journey.

It was a nice touch to end the concert with Bruckner’s Locus iste, arranged for brass ensemble, Karabits allowing the the brass to shine once more.