The opening theme of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 8 is announced in the depths of the orchestra; with the precise rhythm of the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th and something of the character of the Siegfried motive from Götterdämmerung, it contains energy and heroic aspiration, but also a harmonic instability that gives it a searching and unsettled quality. Throughout the movement it is treated to no end of variation, as though searching for a form in which it could at last settle. Often it appears on solo instruments, distorted, inverted, extended, or else it thunders out in triple forte tuttis. At the climax it appears bereft of melody, the rhythm alone stabbed out by the trumpets above dramatic timpani rolls. Thereafter fragments of the theme die away to silence, and the symphony moves on through its hefty Scherzo, lengthy and sublime Adagio, to the prolific thematic content and development of the immense Finale. It’s only when, over an hour after we had previously heard it, the theme returns at the end of the Finale recapitulation, it suddenly becomes apparent that it had in effect been there all the time, its turbulent and questioning energy being the force behind the whole progress of this vast symphonic structure, waiting for its transfiguration in the C major coda to finally bring it to a triumphant and transcendent apotheosis. Or at least, that is how it seemed in Haitink’s wonderfully disciplined and tightly drawn interpretation, executed with exceptional accomplishment by the Royal College of Music Orchestra.

In Haitink’s hands there are no moments of peace and rest, no visions of glorious heavenly calm – not even in the Adagio – but a sense of restless advance. He eschews the ‘monumental’ approach to this symphony and avoids the impression of great architectural blocks and heavenly stasis, but rather gives the sense of presiding over a work driven by irresistible volcanic forces and the shifting of tectonic plates. The eloquent presentation of the opening theme defined the territory which the symphony would occupy, and displayed immediately the great strengths of this orchestra: the rich, warm string tone, the glorious horns and heavy brass. Such idiosyncratic interventions as there were, were invariably subtle and never glib. The first movement ends with a repeated, falling three-note phrase which Bruckner likened to the ticking of a clock in the room where a life ebbs away. Often it is best if it is treated just like a clock, with unfeeling metronomic regularity, but Haitink gave just the slightest extra pause before the final fall, a slight hesitation that leant this last moment an added and fateful significance.

The Scherzo was tremendous: energetic, fast and colourful, with some interesting inner parts brought into the light – I especially noticed a little four-note rising arpeggio-like phrase on the second violins, that rarely makes itself audible. Originally the angular theme of this movement Bruckner thought of as a portrait of his fun-loving friend, the factory owner Carl Almeroth, and in this evening’s performance it came over as irrepressibly joyful. In the Trio the rich warmth of the RCM strings, that was to be on more extended display in the Adagio, took us into a pastoral world of fleeting dreams.

The Adagio begins with pulsating strings that tend more to the gravitas of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration than the eroticism of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, with which they are often compared. Above that the first violins play a theme that commences as though welded to one note, before it flowers into falling scale passages and then a rising strident A major arpeggio. The RCM violins played it passionately, immensely beautiful but with that slightly troubled urgency that characterised the whole of Haitink’s interpretation. No sentimental indulgence was allowed to undermine the progress of the tender melody of the second theme, and the Wagner tubas played their brief chorale with wonderful solemnity. At the climax are two cymbal clashes, written to be played by a B flat and an E flat cymbal respectively. I don’t remember ever having seen a performance that actually used two different cymbals, most presumably regarding cymbals as being of ‘indefinite pitch’, but at this performance one pair was clashed, returned to its stand, and a second slightly smaller pair lifted for the second clash. I confess I was distracted from the high point of the symphony by this peripheral observation and would rather I hadn’t noticed! There was no lingering over the melancholy melodic fragments that bring the movement to its close, short falling violin phrases over sustained chords on Wagner tubas – Haitink refusing to allow the music to wander down shady by-ways and lose sight of its destination.

The brass bring on the finale with their mighty statement of the main theme above stomping repeated crotchets in the strings, embellished by trumpet fanfares. It was a magnificent sound, only surpassed by the recapitulation, which was absolutely riveting – and important that it should be, because it is one of the main landmarks in a movement that needs never to lose its shape. Haitink and his young musicians handled this exceptionally well. The build-up in the coda was perfectly paced, totally gripping. It was perhaps only in the last pages that I wished that Haitink might just allow a little more indulgence, a little slowing down, more time to take in the layered structure of the sound in which the main themes of all four movements are superimposed, just a touch more glory.

One cannot speak too highly of the quality of the orchestra that the RCM students have created this year. They were obviously well-rehearsed, and their responsiveness to the clarity of Haitink’s direction and the rigour of his interpretation, were very impressive indeed and made for an evening’s music-making of outstanding quality. It cannot be easy to rise to the demands of a conductor of such experience and quality, nor indeed to the requirements of this vast symphonic canvas and its composer’s singular vision. In this they acquitted themselves magnificently.