It was in the second subject group recapitulation in the finale to Bruckner’s immense Symphony no. 8 in C minor that I caught myself thinking, “This is going on a bit…”, which is paradoxical in that, although the programme note was very precise in stating that the symphony would last 83 minutes, Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s take on the work dispatched it a good ten minutes quicker. Bruckner doesn’t normally do metronome marks, but for this movement there is one; it was there in the very first version of 1887, and survived all Bruckner’s extensive revisions and collaborations into the first printed edition of 1892. He said the opening stamping rhythm and brass fanfares described the galloping of Cossacks at the meeting of the Emperors of Russia, Austria and Germany. Bruckner scholar Professor William Carragan has even gone as far as to time the rhythm of galloping horses and found the speed corresponds very nicely with Bruckner’s repeated crochets at minim = 69. Almost nobody ever has the courage to trust the composer and play it that slow. Saraste steamed into it as fast as I've ever heard it and repeatedly, in the body of the movement, he urged the tempo of the stormier passages to be faster, such as at the end of the exposition where the timpanist began not quite so fast and suddenly had to accelerate.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste © WDR Thomas Kost
Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© WDR Thomas Kost

I think it was as much this inconsistency in tempo as the speed itself that undermined the coherence of the finale, paradoxically making it seem too long, and the passage in the coda, approaching the famous superimposition of all four main themes from each of the movements, where timpani and trumpet fanfares hammer away at dotted quavers and semiquavers, was suddenly so fast as to be in danger of sounding more ludicrous than exciting.

It was a shame because the previous three movements had fared well in Saraste’s urgently rhapsodic view of the work. The playing of the LPO was superlative throughout; they responded with passion and commitment to Saraste’s vision, and much of the exhilaration that came from this performance was in the sheer beauty of the sound. Some colleagues sitting in the line of fire from the trumpets and trombones found their contribution unpleasantly overwhelming, but from my seat the orchestral balance seemed perfect: I kept breaking into smiles at the sheer beauty of it all.

The first movement, though speedy, was presented as the perfectly formed structure that it is, and within that the second subject's lyrical theme was particularly appealing, the horn solo with the plaintive response from the oboe at the beginning of the development was wonderfully played. At the climax is the ‘annunciation of death’, a shattering moment where the brass thunder out the rhythm of the main theme bereft of any melodic content, though at this speed the final note seemed clipped, as though the dramatic statement had been suddenly interrupted rather than complete in its omnipotence. The final pages were marvellous: hushed but rhythmically uncompromising - no unsubtle ritenuto to try and ease the impact of implacable mortality.

There was also some stunning playing in the Scherzo, quickly done but not too quick, with magically quiet urgent tremolo figures from the violins. The trombones produced some very nice alternating chords beneath the oboe’s iteration of the theme, the orchestral playing filled with energy and kaleidoscopic colours. The beauty of the LPO’s strings was again displayed in the trio’s dreamy melodies, a gorgeous sound. And all the strings, especially the cellos in the second subject, covered themselves in glory in Bruckner’s visionary Adagio, the violins in the valedictory closing pages of the movement creating music of heart-rending beauty. Glorious too were the Wagner tubas, their chorales here and in the finale, perfectly executed.

In keeping with Saraste’s view of the work, the great climax of the Adagio was an excited eruption of rhapsodic ecstasy, rather than a serene mountain peak vision of eternity. It’s a view of the work that had considerable strengths, and revealed a side of Bruckner’s symphonic compositions not often displayed – but I didn’t find it a convincing approach to the finale: Saraste’s uneasy excitability seemed at odds with the content and form of the movement, and although he handled the mighty closing bars with convincing finality I couldn’t help thinking that the symphony’s trajectory, from uncertain and anxious confrontation of mortality to blazing C major affirmation, had in the end been short-changed.

Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor didn’t quite excite the same level of commitment from the LPO. The outer movements came over as more tentative than sensitive. It’s a strange opening theme that sounds as though it wishes to be muscular but somehow withers away and neither Renaud Capuçon nor the orchestra seemed quite to rise to challenge of making the movement work. Coincidentally the work has in common with Bruckner’s 8th a metronome mark for the finale which is usually deemed too slow to observe, and though the woodwind’s repetition of its theme was nicely played, it all sounded too repetitive. By far the best of the performance was the slow movement, and the dialogue between Capuçon’s weeping violin and Kristina Blaumane’s tender cello solos was very touching indeed.