Above the organ loft in the Gewandhaus in Leipzig sits a severe inscription in Latin: Res severa verum gaudium (True joy is a serious thing). And Friday’s Prom stayed true to it. A short programme of Bach organ works played by the orchestra’s own Gewandhausorganist Michael Schönheit was followed by Bruckner’s mighty Eighth Symphony. A full house at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday night seemed to approve wholeheartedly; I had reservations.

Michael Schönheit © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Michael Schönheit
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Let’s first flag up unambiguous positive: it was not just a very good thing, it was joyously counter-intuitive to witness an enthusiastic crowd of around six thousand people packing the Royal Albert Hall for a recital on the 9,998-pipe Father Willis organ, fully restored and expanded some fifteen years ago. So the fact that the BBC Proms programmers and the Leipzig management were able to bring that about deserves celebrating. And yet Friday’s the results were underwhelming. The short opening work, the Fantasia in G minor BWV 542 presents the organist with the invitation to crunch its dissonances for all they are worth, to ride the gauntlet of its switchbacks in pace, to let the piece’s freedom ring, to use the Albert Hall echo in the silences to ‘play the building’. Except that it didn’t really happen. Schönheit’s interpretation of the piece seemed timid, dutiful, maybe even overawed. He did move quite convincingly into gentler, more familiar and earworm-ish territory with the chorale Jesus bleibet meine Freude in a transcription, and the chorale prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. And as for the last work in his programme, the triumphant, scurrying, eddying fugue in E flat major BWV 552/2 known as the “St Anne” again promised the sky, but Schönheit’s semi-quavers needed to flow more evenly, and this final flourish, as with his set as a whole, was to stay earthbound.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Andris Nelsons conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is a work on a scale which fits the Royal Albert Hall, and has been frequently performed at the Proms, on average one year in three since the 1970s. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra has a unique history and affinity with Bruckner and this performance did have its glories- eventually. The brass playing towards the end of the slow movement, especially the horns, was unforgettable. However, listening to the concert again on the radio reinforces the impression that the first movement had more than its fair share of hesitancies and mishaps. The wind section sometimes comes in as a splurge rather than as a unit.

The main visual memory was of Andris Nelson’s dominant gesture, a repeated fast upward flick of the baton to indicate, for example the end of an expressive holding back, or the start of a new tempo. I found that gesture from Nelsons disquieting to watch, and a world away from either Gunter Wand's benign and gentle nurturing, or Eugen Jochum's magisterial detachment. The effect from moment to moment was to create uncertainty and lack of flow when, for example, the same phrase is being passed around the orchestra in conversation, and the cumulative effect was a lack of shape or – to use the word perhaps over-employed to describe Bruckner’s vast structures – architecture. It was a curious approach, and repeated listens to the audio of that first movement do not bring clarification as to what overall effect he was trying to create.

Things did improve as the work progressed, and it is tempting to wonder perhaps it just takes time for Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra to re-acclimatise to each other after a gap of nearly two months which the Leipzigers have had a holiday and the Latvian has has spent “shaking the shed” with his other orchestra, the Boston Symphony, in Tanglewood. Perhaps the later performances in this run, in Salzburg and Lucerne will deliver the unity and the magic which seemed to only happen sporadically in this London performance.

***11