This was a tremendous concert. That is to say it presented two of the grandest works in their genre, Mozart’s longest piano concerto and Bruckner’s longest completed symphony, moving from Mozart’s imposing C major maestoso entrance to, nearly 2 hours of music later, Bruckner’s blazing C major transfiguration. But Mozart has hardly allowed his grand ceremonial opening to register before he shifts the music into the minor key, and repeatedly so throughout the work - and in that shift is prefigured much of the business of the entire evening, for Bruckner’s C minor symphony begins in an uncertain tonal area with a dramatic motive on the cellos and basses that never knows where to settle, and whose uncertainty haunts the whole work until it is finally brought back transformed into the heaven-storming C major coda. What a challenge for soloist, orchestra and conductor - and indeed, for the audience!

© Hans van der Woerd
© Hans van der Woerd

These were performances with many strengths and it was altogether a memorable concert, but there were some limitations to the interpretative approach which perhaps prevented either piece from realising its full potential. What one noticed immediately was the stunning beauty of the orchestral playing of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, especially the string tone: this was incomparably rich, dark-hued, full of texture and power - something which was to come into its own to glorious effect in the Bruckner. But the soloist in the Mozart, a lissom, long-haired romantic, playing all Mozart’s prolific passage-work with great clarity and passionate involvement, for much of the time with his eyes down on the keyboard, played for all the world as if he were on his own. Certainly there was never a moment in which the orchestra and soloist were out of time with each other; but equally, there was never a moment in which you heard the special inflection he gave to a phrase being reflected in the way an orchestral player responded to it. Communication between soloist and orchestra seemed to be only of the most functional kind, and the orchestral accompaniment relatively colourless against the intensity of the solo playing. There was much that was very beautiful from both sources, and it was a joy to listen to, but a little more communing together with the equality of a chamber ensemble might have enabled something altogether more rewarding. Nevertheless, come the Rondo finale, full of life and virtuosity, orchestra and soloist gave us full measure of joyful vitality.

Mozart was 30 when he penned his 25th piano concerto; Bruckner was twice his age when he made his first sketches for the 8th symphony, and although he had more years left to live than Mozart, one of the major concerns of this symphony is human mortality, the approach of death. The climax of the first movement in which horns and trumpets blare out the bare rhythm of the opening theme, bereft of all melody, (the rhythm of the main theme of Beethoven’s 9th, first movement) was described by Bruckner as ‘the annunciation of death’, and the fade-out ending as being like a clock ticking in a room where someone dies. This terrible drama was somewhat underplayed in this performance. Jaap van Zweden conducted with immense clarity and control, and never for a moment did you feel other than that he had the whole structure in mind and knew exactly how each piece of the jigsaw should fit together, but this impressive control also meant that there was never a sense that the orchestra could let rip, play near the edge, take any risks - it was never dangerous. On the other hand, when the strings introduced the rising, lyrical second theme - according to Bruckner’s biographer Max Auer, a theme redolent of the young women with whom Bruckner was prone to repeatedly and unsuccessfully fall in love - the warmth and colour of the sound was astonishing.

Van Zweden’s approach showed its greatest strengths in the Scherzo where, from the very first horn call, with its little acciaccatura, you were on the edge of your seat. It’s marked Allegro moderato, but here there was little that was moderate: it was fast, exciting and wonderfully played. The horns were magnificent throughout, (and the first horn, Petra Botma, deserves special mention for her many faultless and expressive solos - not least at the opening of the first movement development) handling the endless repetitions of the scherzo theme with sublime agility. The Trio was also relatively quick, so this dreamy interlude never sounded as though it belonged to a different movement, and the slower tempo of its central section, although not called for in the score, was very effective in giving a moment of reflection, a little melancholy calm at the centre of the storm. Once again the string tone was ‘to die for’, and even more so in the Adagio, one of Bruckner’s greatest, one of the greatest of any symphony, given here a performance of very special beauty. The rising waves of passion were controlled very clearly by van Zweden as the movement threads its way to its visionary summit, though the unwonted accelerando to the climax denied that vision something of its transcendent splendour.

The brass storm in with the Finale, playing of wonderful quality in this performance - crisp, commanding, the trumpet fanfares blazing to the heavens. This is the only movement in all his symphonies in which Bruckner himself has provided a metronome marking on the manuscript - minim=69 - and he said that this opening was an image of galloping Cossacks at the meeting of the Emperors of Russia, Germany and Austria. Jaap van Zweden’s mounted regiments galloped a good deal faster than those Bruckner had in mind, but it was all tremendously exciting and exhilarating to listen to. Equally gripping was the contribution of timpanist Paul Jussen, here and in Scherzo, at the back raised above most of the orchestra, his fortissimo intrusions into the musical fabric never less than arresting. The quiet song-period (Gesangsperiode), and the descending chorale of the third theme group, once again ravishingly played by the strings, provided effective contrast and time for reflection in the heart of the maelstrom. As was the case in its earlier appearances, there was a lack of the last ounce of drama in the return of the first movement’s death-haunted main theme, and this deprived the final victory of its full power - but even so, this was a glorious and resplendent C major ending to a tremendous concert.

The audience had been remarkably quiet and attentive throughout - to the credit of the unflinching concentration of the conductor and sheer beauty of the orchestral playing. The applause was uproarious, long and enthusiastic. Bruckner had once been in this hall, to play the organ in 1871 - would that he had been here this evening to see the reception his mighty symphony still receives 140 years later!