You can view Bruckner’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor in one of two ways: the short term view of the individual phrases, each with its own timbre, articulation, harmonic impression, or the long term view of the architecture of each movement and of the whole work, how the music progresses to impart its message. From the short term viewpoint, Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra worked wonders at the Royal Albert Hall last night. From the long term architectural angle, I wasn’t so sure.

Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou (at Prom 66)
Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou (at Prom 66)

The Concertgebouw proved that this hall can be tamed: they played with such precision and commitment that every phrase sang through loud and clear. There was a sense of purpose from the horn calls at the very beginning of the work; the brass chorales exuded a solemn, processional feel, the players showed an uncanny ability to press on the accelerator at the same time. The big romantic theme of the first movement was deliciously lush, the major-minor chord shifts telling, its final repeat preceded by a lovely soft interlude and followed by a highly satisfactory ending, with perfectly together brass underpinned by rock solid timpani.

The second movement is in scherzo-trio-scherzo form. The pizzicato introduction was cheeky, the main theme was pounding and demonic, generating real excitement, the contrasting trio was skittish, cute, demanding that one pick up one’s feet and dance. At every stage, it was the perfect togetherness of the playing that made the performance so impressive – not just the synchronism of the beginning and end of notes, but the common understanding of the players of how the music should be phrased.

The third movement – as the first, a slow movement – continued to show the Concertgebouw’s ability to produce pure beauty of timbre, as well as to showcase their mastery of the way Bruckner grows one phrase out of another while the first phrase is still playing. The Wagnerian sweep of the big opening theme was palpable, oboe interludes were particularly notable, the chorales on Wagner tuba imparted great spirituality.

Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou (at Prom 66)
Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou (at Prom 66)

From the long term architectural viewpoint, however, there was something missing. Bruckner gives us some big themes which keep returning; in this performance, those themes were superb, thrilling, intense – but, broadly speaking, they were the same each time. For a truly satisfying performance of the Ninth, those motifs need to be more than signposts, they need to tell a subtly different story each time as they lead you toward a conclusion. None the less, in terms of pure sonic beauty and persuasive phrasing, this is as good a Ninth as you’ll hear.

It’s going to take a lot to convince me that an hour plus of Bruckner needs to be preceded by a 15 minute work and a 20 minute interval, and Wolfgang Rihm’s In-Schrift isn’t going to be the work that does it. This is what listeners of my parents' generation would have called “not real music”: a series of fragments exploring various sonic possibilities that can be created by an orchestra with no violins or violas but two harps and extensive brass and percussion sections.

In-Schrift was written in 1995 to explore the sound worlds that could be created in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. I’ve not heard music in St Mark’s, but I’ve got to assume that its reverberance and sound colour are an awfully long way from what you get in the Royal Albert Hall. For sure, interesting sound effects were being created: there was real virtuosity from the five percussionists when they were required to strike identical instruments at precisely the same time, notably the woodblocks. There were some effective discords, some interesting snatches of harmony in the brass, some virtuosic tongueing from the principal flautist (as well as the unaccustomed view of her serving as orchestra leader). But the truth is that ten minutes in, I was bored and musing on how much happier I’d have been to go straight into the Bruckner.