Over the course of 15 years or so, Bruckner’s Third and Fourth Symphonies suffered a series of drastic revisions, firstly by the composer apparently entirely on his own initiative, but also in the late 1880s (when perhaps he might have been better advised to remain focused on his Ninth, which he might then have had time to complete before his passing) in collaboration with the young conductor Franz Schalk and his brother Joseph. The 1889 version of his Symphony no. 3 in D minor that the LPO played this evening was the fruit of this collaboration, and it is this version of the symphony that made its way in Bruckner’s last years and throughout most of the 20th century. The most drastic changes that the composer and his young friends agreed on were in the finale, which was brutally abbreviated, most of the development and third theme recapitulation were jettisoned, and there was considerable reorchestration. The result is a movement so truncated and disjointed that it is rarely convincing. Stanisław Skrowaczewski has been loyal to this edition throughout his conducting career; he conducted it with the Hallé in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, nearly 30 years ago, and it was the great triumph of this performance that he made it thoroughly convincing. A movement whose approach I view with some trepidation as the symphony progresses was transformed into a triumphantly cogent finish to what was an outstanding performance.

Stanisław Skrowaczewski © Toshiyuki Urano
Stanisław Skrowaczewski
© Toshiyuki Urano

Part of the trick was to play the polka-over-funeral-chorale second subject with a proper lilt, but slow, nothing of the tritsch-tratsch about it, and hence the chorale beneath it, magnificently played by the horns and woodwind of the LPO on top form, had a warm, expressive inwardness. Much of the interpretation that preceded this moment had presented an unsettled and stormy symphony, the reworking of the orchestration of this version has something of Bruckner’s later, more troubled and dissonant style, but this chorale brought a visionary stillness from which the blazing D major coda could arise with total conviction. It’s one of those spine-tingling moments as the low strings surge ahead through a series of rising scales, leading to a searing trumpet fanfare followed by a grand closing statement of the first movement theme, now in the major and triple forte on the full orchestra. Skrowaczewski paced it to perfection and the orchestra gave him all that glorious brilliance of sound of which it is capable.

Right from the start, Skrowaczewski had opted for animation rather than mystical stasis in the extended D minor first theme exposition, and later on the rise to the development climax was given an urgent accelerando, not in the score. Come the recapitulation of the second theme – a lyrical, densely contrapuntal ‘song period’ in Bruckner’s signature rhythm, 1-2-3, 1-2 – the orchestral playing of the strings rose to a high level of passionate expressiveness. As always with Skrowaczewski, there was no self-regarding resort to special effects, and the beautifully played Adagio was crowned with a climax moderated by restraint. The somewhat arbitrary trumpet theme that Bruckner introduced only in this final version avoided any hint of brash vulgarity that can sometimes afflict it. Particularly telling had been the rapt, quiet playing of the misterioso section of the second group, which had been preceded by the violas’ theme, with that wonderful dusky, grainy, somewhat dry tone that only a group of violas can produce. We heard them again, equally beautiful, in the Trio of the third movement, at a rather slow tempo which perhaps didn’t quite feel as though it connected organically with the tempo of the Scherzo.

Skrowaczewski is a wonderfully unassuming conductor, on the podium merely to assist the musicians to perform the work as best they can, and such “charisma” as he has today is more a function of his age (approaching his 90th birthday) than any personal affectation. He stood throughout, not even a conductor’s high chair to support him, a baton just a little bit longer than Gergiev’s toothpick. He had the score in front of him, but it remained unopened, as though its mere presence was a more than adequate source of inspiration. Once the music finishes and you consider what has taken place, you realise what a great conductor he is, and that what you have just heard is, in fact, a very great interpretation perfectly achieved.

It was a relatively young man who stood beside him and played Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor in the first half, Benjamin Beilman, and he produced from the outset a wonderfully sweet and singing tone with, to my ears, perfect intonation. It was not a performance that exposed previously undiscovered depths to this music, but it rose from the strings beneath his bow with vitality and thrilling beauty. The virtuosity was splendid, all the passage work that accompanies the orchestra when they have the theme in no way routinely dispatched, but conscientiously defined and accented. I was particularly taken by the diminuendo of staccato arpeggios that ends his first movement cadenza as the orchestra steals in beneath them. That was just one magical moment in a radiant performance.