This was Fabio Luisi’s debut with the LSO, and there were many in the audience keen to hear what this accomplished Wagnerian in the ‘Ring’ cycle at the New York Met (where Luisi is Principal Conductor to James Levine’s Music Director) would bring to Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. Before that minefield of second thoughts, though, came Mozart’s benign K488 Piano Concerto with Lise de la Salle (another LSO debut) who has worked frequently with Luisi.
The size of the orchestra was generous, but the rich sound rippled with elegantly dovetailed phrasing, and, as ever, the LSO’s peerless wind section was on stylish form. Lise de la Salle had the sunny disposition of the first movement to a T, and her mischievous improvements on the LSO’s articulation gave an added zest to Mozart at his most chatty and genial.
Her even, spirited playing made the Adagio seem more than usually tragic, and Luisi’s distinction as an opera conductor gave its simple opening theme a poignancy that the pianist’s restraint and control of tone elevated to a dialogue beyond words. Her playing here was exceptional, inward, responsive and intensely communicated, but she had plenty in reserve for a brilliant and impressively fast finale.
It’s fair to say these days that the prevailing experience of Bruckner’s Eighth is through Leopold Nowak’s 1955 edition of the 1890 revision, with the added and odd effect of placing Plan B ahead of Plan A (and this is before you get on to Robert Haas’s edition). The few occasions when I’ve heard the original 1887 score, as rejected by Bruckner’s “protector” Hermann Levi, in a concert have accentuated the differences between the two to the point of eccentricity, so the integrity of this superb performance was nothing short of revelatory.
The differences are huge, especially in the first three movements – the affirming C major coda to the first movement, the trio to the scherzo thoroughly revised, and the oblique and noisy approach to the Adagio’s climax are just the tip of the iceberg to the revision’s extensive reworking. For what it’s worth, the main reason I prefer Bruckner’s revision is down to his jettisoning of the big coda to the first movement, which keeps the mirage of major-key resolution just out of reach until the finale’s coda.
As fascinating as it was to register the unexpected, Luisi and the LSO went way beyond a mere process of disinterment to present this Eighth as a Symphony with its own logic, strengths and weaknesses. The sound Luisi drew was much more raw than you’d expect from this orchestra playing this composer, notably so in the brass, with irruptive trumpets highlighting an unusually edgy response from the Wagner tubas. The strings produced a lithe separation of tone of ear-catching clarity and ballast, with ravishing front-desk violin solos in the Adagio mercifully remaining intact in both versions.
Another big point of the original is that it is significantly longer – this performance took 90 minutes – but Luisi’s marked fluctuations of tempo kept faith with the music’s overall pulse, so nothing dragged, and there’s an incisiveness to his beat that shaped and shaded Bruckner’s inimitable time-scale. Perhaps harking back to the ‘Ring’, Luisi enabled a Siegfried-like transparency to the string sound in the Adagio, and his handling of the process of delayed gratification (so much more assured in the revision) in the assaults on the music’s summit was masterly and clear. Coherent and completely in step with Bruckner’s visionary quality, this was a performance that only doubled one’s love for this incredible work.