The Britten-Mozart-Beethoven programme heard a few days ago had one outing; this Beethoven-Bruckner one is repeated in a few days' time: go to it! At least the microphones were out (presumably for LSO Live) to preserve what was a revelatory account of the Beethoven, and for the monumental collective-worship that was experienced for Bruckner’s final, unfinished symphony. The LSO, Bernard Haitink and Maria João Pires then jet off to South Korea and Japan.
It’s fair to say that Beethoven’s Second (performed and likely written before the First, but published later) is regarded as the poor-relation of his numbered quintet of piano concertos; its looking-back (to Mozart and Haydn) at odds with the revolutionary zeal often associated with this composer. This account, under Haitink’s meticulous direction, blew away whatever cobwebs have encased it for years. The victory, though, was Pires’s: the music flowed in understated and seamless fashion, the first movement sweeping along. The outsized cadenza displayed Beethoven’s defiance, and was here hearty and with brio. The finale propelled and fizzed, like vintage champagne, its flavours encased in layers of finesse. But it was in the slow movement where time stood still: a concentrated outpouring of what appear to be simple gestures, but are sheer genius, the listener ensnared by Pires’s playing, silences compelling as much as the notes.
In the Bruckner, those opening tremolos obliged immediately, heralding a performance of sweep, conviction and humanity in the face of adversity. Haitink’s spacious approach (the opening movement clocked-in at 28 minutes) was totally convincing, maintaining clarity-through-the-swells while the sonic climaxes revealed Bruckner’s music as a marble edifice. The movement’s many sudden dynamic changes sounded utterly natural. The scherzo’s pounding rhythms were dispatched with bite and weight, then soothed by the sprightly trio. Although not Bruckner’s intended conclusion, the third-movement Adagio brought palpable fulfilment. In places it was terrifying – to stare at the face of God invokes His damnation and instils fear – the climaxes awesome with rasping brass and timpani rolls absolutely spot-on. Before the biggest climax of all, there is the most serene music, which was pure heaven here, a shaft of light coming down from on high. Brass chorales were burnished and warm, Wagner tubas especially so.
Bernard Haitink’s view is that the unfinished version is as complete as we should hear it (there are numerous completions of the finale). This was a far-reaching symphonic journey and a special occasion.