Bruckner, like all symphonic-minded composers after Beethoven, had a finale problem, or so the conventional wisdom goes. How, after all, could one follow the Ninth? At his very greatest, Bruckner solved this with ingenious formal devices (his Fifth Symphony) or through sheer force of emotional and religious will (his Eighth). For the listener, perhaps unable to consult the score during a performance to track the progress of his key changes, everything comes together during the codas, when Bruckner takes his themes and combines them in counterpoint, illustrating the true symphonic unity of the individual movements and, more importantly, the glory of God. In the Fifth especially, through its double fugal build-up of addition, piling theme upon theme with increasing majesty and explosive drive, everything depends on the last ten minutes. A performance stands or falls on them, whether as a summation, or as a final indication that the symphony’s demands have eluded the musicians’ grasp.

Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Salzburg Festival 2013 © Silvia Lelli
Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Salzburg Festival 2013
© Silvia Lelli

Of course, those brilliant codas can do one more thing: redeem the largely mediocre, set the average aside, and leave the impression that a performance was far better than it was overall. Franz Welser-Möst could not do that the last time I heard this orchestra in Bruckner, at Carnegie Hall in March. But that was what happened here. With the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on the cinematically widescreen stage of Salzburg’s Großes Festspielhaus, their beloved Christian Thielemann on the podium, and one performance already under their belts, this could have been a truly great performance. It wasn’t, for the Philharmonic were on form alternately exasperating and exhilarating, and predominantly the former. Yet for ten minutes, Thielemann and the Philharmonic found a state of unquestionable, indomitable orchestral supremacy, as if sent down from on high just when it was needed most.

For an hour beforehand, however, everything fell flat, or at least far short of the expectations that the Philharmonic cultivate for themselves. Thielemann, a prominent Brucknerian who left me unconvinced leading the Staatskapelle Dresden last time I heard him for Bachtrack, found a perfect sense of security in the opening pizzicato revelries of the introduction. (As Peter Quantrill’s programme note rightly pointed out, this is not a darkness-to-light symphony, but one that slowly completes itself, sustaining and enhancing over its long progress a light already there at the start.) From then, though, even tempos that were moderate rather than stately only emphasised niggles. The brass were fulsome, burnished, but barely an entry was together. The strings seeped golden sound, but one could never escape some rather odd noises coming from the concertmaster’s desk. The architectural design was there under Thielemann’s sure hand, but there were an uncomfortable number of notes astray, if not splayed incoherently around the sound picture.

Likewise the second movement, containing in its second theme one of Bruckner’s most convincing hymns of sadness. Individual players shone at times, particularly the mellow principal clarinet, and Thielemann conjured an apt sense of stillness by the end. Yet tempos sagged, not through any fault of Thielemann himself, but because the front desks of the first violins insisted on playing long before the rear, dragging the music along rather than allowing it to flow between moods. The scherzo was much better, details poking through with meaning now, and although Thielemann’s long accelerations and decelerations seemed lethargic, they were controlled. Characterful woodwinds in the trio contrasted well with the outer passages, in which the orchestra even found a welcome sense of violence, of something at stake.

The return of the introduction’s pizzicato heralded the same feeling of optimism for the finale, and now the orchestra seemed finally to be playing itself into some kind of form. Parts began much greater dialogue, even if Bruckner’s fugues sounded more like an exercise than something lived. And then, suddenly, the Philharmonic were on electric form, the strings afire and the brass celebratory for the final, blazing chorale, superbly controlled by Thielemann. Now the Philharmonic were cold-sweat, chest-pain good. What a pity they had not been earlier.

***11