Given the fact that Bruckner himself, on his death-bed, sanctioned the use of his Te Deum as a final movement to the symphony he knew he was not going to finish, its notable that this combination rarely occurs in the concert hall. But despite the composer’s ‘permission’ and a number of reconstructions of Bruckner’s final workings and sketches, the three-movement Ninth has come to seem complete, with the quiet coda to the Adagio chiming in with Bruckner’s withdrawal from life.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Chief Guest Conductor, gave a short speech before the concert to encourage us to view the two works as a whole – with no applause until the end and with no interval to break the flow – and setting the ecclesiastical, almost liturgical flavour of the evening by prefacing the concert with one of Bruckner’s finest motets, Christus factus est, music written for Holy Week and extremely penitential in tone.
I find the emotional range of the symphony too complex and tragic for the Te Deum to provide anything other than a general, triumphalist conclusion, although both were performed superbly. Nézet-Séguin is a Bruckner natural, with a seemingly complete grasp of how the music’s underlying pulse moves independently of tempo, giving its momentum an unassailable inevitability; the compelling physicality of his conducting makes the orchestral detail sing and releases a degree of connectivity in the music that you are rarely aware of.
His sense of vision and scale was immediately apparent in the way he gave the first movement its all-important escape from the Beethoven-like D minor opening to explore its profoundly troubled narrative, enhanced by predominantly slow tempos. As though anticipating the splendours of the Te Deum, he kept a restraining hand on volume, and the climaxes came across as long-term structural rather than one-off events. The was a veiled quality to the sound that played up to the music’s spaciousness as well as admitting to a deep unease, and it’s the assurance and imagination underlying Nézet-Séguin’s overview of this movement that connected so powerfully with the audience. The Adagio was even more involving in this regard, Nézet-Séguin investing the journey towards the terrifying climax with mounting dread as well as a compulsive need to confront this crisis, one of music’s most baleful dark stars.
You just know that it would also have cast its shadow over the intended finale. Instead, the Te Deum’s opening blast of C major blew all the demons away, preparing the way for a magnificent, barnstorming performance. The London Philharmonic Choir produced volume, colour and, in the concluding fugue, athleticism to spare, Christine Brewer and Toby Spence sang with ecstatic abandon, the solo quartet ‘Te ergo quaesumus’ was impressively inward, the radiant violin solos threw a line straight back to Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, the five sections flowed seamlessly into and out of each other, and it was all delivered with huge passion and urgency – and would have been just as satisfying as a stand-alone performance.
It was a special pleasure to hear a choir of this size singing Bruckner‘s great Christus factus est, a distillation of the composer’s late style, its mysterious harmonies securely pitched and the pianissimos like an almost-palpable wall of sound.