The London Symphony Orchestra under Nathalie Stutzmann give an exemplary performance of Bruckner’s last symphony, rounded off with the composer’s 1883 Te Deum.
When Bruckner died in 1896, his 9th symphony, lacking a fourth and final movement, was added to the unofficial catalogue of Great Unfinished Works. Performances since have experimented with what to do about the end: some leave it as is (the quiet coda of the third movement provides a degree of aesthetic closure); others attempt to pull something together from Bruckner’s scattered sketches; another tack, though, has been to take the composer’s suggestion (made in his final months) of substituting his 1883 Te Deum for the planned ‘Hymn of Praise’. The latter solution is only rarely ventured (probably because of the extra forces required), but on Sunday evening, the LSO under Nathalie Stutzmann – along with London Symphony Chorus and soloists Lucy Crowe, Anna Stéphany, Robin Tritschler and Alexander Tsymbalyuk – not only made the attempt, but planted a flag on the summit.
It’s probably true to say that Stutzmann’s reputation as a conductor has now eclipsed her previous fame as a singer, and, certainly, tackling a pre-eminent work in the canon like this, and bringing it off with élan, confirms her status in the big league. It’s certainly a tricky work, and is different in character from its predecessor, the 8th symphony. In the latter, Bruckner’s obsessive personality pervades in his constant worrying at portions of thematic material, reiterating them with slightly different instrumentation, until they submit, making (sorry, Bruckner fans) the 80-something-minute experience somewhat tedious, despite its grandeur. In the 9th, it’s almost as though a desperate need to get down all of his musical ideas before his death, pushes Bruckner on through his repetitive compulsions, and the result (certainly in the first and third movements) is a mercurial work, full of shifting ideas (albeit some of them are not new) and sudden swerves of mood, that, despite its 60 minute running time, is surprisingly concise.
Stutzmann and the LSO demonstrated a consummate understanding of all this in their account on Sunday evening, presenting the whirl of the composer’s thematic utterances with clarity, verve, and a relentless attention to the dynamic, speed and timbre that marks each one out.
The first movement is all about horns: their sinister little motif is the first thing heard over the opening unison note; their quiet calls permeate the texture throughout the development, and their eight-part chorus provides the solid centre to the massive brass outpourings at the dynamic pinnacles of the movement. The LSO section did not disappoint, here, and judged each of these textures to perfection. This isn’t to decry the input of the other sections – there was some fine textural work from the woodwind, and some heartachingly lovely lyrical passages from the strings; the spooky spiderweb of violins that commences the final long crescendo was perfectly controlled, allowing the engine of the brass to throb into blaring life.
“…on Sunday evening, the LSO… not only made the attempt, but planted a flag on the summit”
The symphony’s Scherzo is perhaps where Bruckner reverted to his old obsessive habits, but then, the Classical ‘ABA’ form he chose for it makes for repetition. Here, Stutzmann and the orchestra made fine work of separating Bruckner’s ‘hammering’ sections (which were given bags of energetic drive) and the more lyrical material (the string pizzicato work with woodwind ‘froth’, for example, or the jolly ‘scurrying’ in the upper strings), where elegant co-ordination was the watchword.
The delivery of the Mahlerian chromaticism of the third movement’s opening was accomplished almost with an impressionist’s nod and wink, after which the delights kept coming. Once the Wagner tubas were let out, we were able to bask even more in the comforting warmth of the brass choruses, yet, with added flutes in the middle of the movement, we felt the chill of Bruckner’s approaching end, only for the temperature to rise once again for the string crescendo through which the brass arpeggios peeked like a rising sun. These shifts in temperature are the hallmark of the movement, and the orchestra managed these fickle textural statements with aplomb.
The transition from the quiet, finally resolved E-major of the third movement’s coda into the brash C-major of the opening of the Te Deum left one feeling slightly discombobulated, but the jolt was worth it for the full-throated joy given to the unison opening ‘Te Deum laudamus’ statement by the London Symphony Chorus. The LSC continued their good work throughout the piece, giving us an effulgent ‘Sanctus’ (and an overwhelming ‘pleni sunt coeli’), as well as some well contrasted dynamics throughout (the unaccompanied singing later in the work was particularly precisely co-ordinated, and the pianissimi were special indeed). Perhaps the only slight quibbles were the odd flabby entry in the contrapuntal ‘In te Domine’.
The soloists blended well as a quartet, particularly in the passages where they were either unaccompanied or the orchestration was minimal; their position between chorus and orchestra, though, didn’t (especially in the Barbican Hall’s chancy acoustic) make for the best balance, and tenor Robin Tritschler (who has the lion’s share of the solo work) had to work very hard, on occasion, to make himself heard.