Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
“… an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.”
It was a wretchedly cold Friday night in Edinburgh, and the rugby was on the telly. Moreover the programme was Bruckner and Mahler, absolutely my favourite, but not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet if the members of the RSNO could bus or drive in from Glasgow on a night such as this, so could I shuffle across Bruntsfield Links to a near capacity house. Testimony to the RSNO, for sure, and we were amply rewarded by some fine playing.
Putting Bruckner and Mahler together on a programme is not untypical, and of course only one work can be a full symphony or the concert would go on too long. Nonetheless I was puzzled why relatively early Bruckner (around 1880) and late Mahler (written c1910) should be conjoined. The answer was found in the playing of Mahler’s Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony, typically valedictory; and of Bruckner’s Symphony No 4 (The Romantic), triumphant and life affirming.
The key point I want to put across in this review is the sheer quality of the orchestra’s playing on the night, and the incredible discipline of the baton of Thomas Sondergard that stopped the tendency of Bruckner symphonies to ‘wander’ or lose their way. The Bruckner can sometimes sound muddy with the high proportion of brass, but we experienced none of that, but just utter clarity.
Occasionally Sondergard addresses the audience at the beginning of a concert and I wondered if he was going to tonight, especially as it was quite a short bill with just 1 hour 25 minutes of music. He chose not to, and was right, as the Mahler is a sombre piece and a stand alone work in itself. I was astonished at how the orchestra immediately got into the piece – a desperately exposed violin and horn introduction played assuredly that swept us away into a rewarding exposition with some of the most complex Mahlerian harmonies that I have heard. This included moments of real poignancy that at one stage found your reviewer wiping his eyes!
We returned after the interval to hear the Bruckner. This was a taut, disciplined and expertly played piece that kept us on the edge of our seats for the entire 62 minutes. All sections excelled themselves but my personal gold medal would go to the cellos – who were not asked to take a bow, probably because of the difficulty of all eight of them getting up at the same time with their cumbersome instruments. Time and time again Sondergard’s stern but helpful baton stopped us losing the tempo or phrasing, so that we felt, and the orchestra sounded, as fresh at the end as at the beginning. This was an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.
A footnote to compliment the audience on this cold and coldy night. Not a single cough or splutter during the music and a patient, eternal, wait after the Mahler for the conductor to drop his baton. After the Bruckner we could not contain ourselves and the applause immediately followed the concluding note, along with several shouts of “Bravo”. Quite rightly so.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 2 February)
Go to the RSNO, Scotland’s national orchestra
Visit Edinburgh49 at the Usher Hall