Pairing Bruckner’s eighth symphony with Bach organ works in this concert by the Leipzig Gewandhaus was an odd piece of programming, although there are tenuous connections in that Bruckner was an organist, and Leipzig was arguably Bach’s most well-known city of residence. Musically, however, they remained strange bedfellows.
The organist Michael Schönheit’s repertoire for the short first half was a collection of Bach ‘pops’: the G-minor Fantasia; Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesu, joy…); Wachet auf and the E-flat prelude and fugue (‘St Anne’). Sadly, the selection and execution combined to produce 20 minutes of organ music that was worthy but dull. The choice of well-known pieces was laudable, but it will have done little to excite organ aficionados, for whom such fare can only be a means to hearing an organist’s technique and interpretation, along with the range and timbre of the instrument.
Schönheit’s technique was excellent; he clearly understood the pace and direction of each piece, and his addition/interpretation of ornamentation had a light touch to it. But the registrations used were so safe as to engender considerable ennui, Schönheit opting for a limited timbral palette for each piece, and sticking with it throughout (a couple of echo effects in E-major prelude provided the only noticeable differences). Clearly, using the whole compass of the Albert Hall’s instrument would have been to throw authenticity out of the window (although why not do so, with some transcriptions and arrangements?), but the stops deployed were not nearly as interesting as their equivalents on historically-referenced instruments in more acoustically lively buildings would have been. The question left hanging was: “Why this repertoire on this instrument?”
The problem with Bruckner symphonies is that – to re-purpose Rossini’s remark about Wagner – they have “…good moments, but awful quarters of an hour”. This is not so much to do with the musical ideas, which are exciting, inspiring and moving, but the way Bruckner strings them together in a slow-moving, mathematically obsessive, repeating procession.
Take, for example, the scherzo from the eighth symphony: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Andris Nelsons produced some exquisite sounds in the movement, opening with an urgent horn call and instantly uneasy strings. The central section’s violin theme was given the most delicate of treatments, and its slow blossoming, contrasting with the horn counterpoint and the woodwind chorus, was sensitively controlled so that the harps’ entry twinkled in to provide the perfect apotheosis. Bruckner, though, seems determined for the listener not to take any of this joy away. The scherzo’s Allegro moderato theme and counter-theme are played, separately and together, on a seemingly endless set of combinations of instruments (all of which the orchestra balanced and contrasted precisely for texture), Bruckner fiddling with the idea until it is well and truly broken. The trio offers a light surcease, but then Bruckner subjects you, with remorseless symmetry, to the first section all over again.
Nelsons is a man for a pause, and these were used to great effect throughout the symphony, particularly where the subsequent entry was quiet. In this respect, the opening of the third movement was especially bewitching, the lilt in the strings almost imperceptibly expanding through the chromatic development to disappear into harp scintillations. The silence before the passage for a quartet of Wagner tubas (played with heart-rending warmth) was infinitesimal but magical.
Throughout, Nelsons and the orchestra continued to deliver all of those aforementioned exciting, inspiring and moving moments: heavyweight brass; string tone that varied from a just-audible shimmering to luscious warmth; quirky woodwind trios. That the symphony – for all of this consummately nuanced performance – felt tediously long, is nobody’s fault but Bruckner’s.