Edinburgh International Festival – Beethoven 1 & Bruckner 8

Beethoven
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Bruckner
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version edited Leopold Nowak]

Philharmonia Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt

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Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 30 August, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The penultimate instalment of the Edinburgh Festival’s triple-decker concerts embracing Beethoven and Bruckner cycles brought us the smallest but by no means least interesting of Beethoven’s symphonies yoked with the grandest of Bruckner’s; in between were three Brandenburg Concertos with the Northern Sinfonia and Thomas Zehetmair. I settled for two courses.

This marked the final concert in Sir Charles Mackerras’s hugely distinguished Beethoven collaboration with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (the concluding ‘Choral’ is with the Philharmonia Orchestra) and the SCO’s playing has been of a consistent fire, commitment and polish. The sheer perfection of intonation and lilting unanimity of the second violins (positioned to the right, of course) at the opening of the First Symphony’s Andante cantabile was one of those moments of pure frisson which renew one’s faith and joy in live music-making. With just under 40 musicians, Mackerras also drew sound of quite unusual weight and power from relatively limited resources.

For the most part dynamic levels were comparatively restrained, the impact being achieved by a combination of precision and focus; for instance, at the symphony’s very first note, instead of the woodwinds’ chord and string pizzicato as usually heard, there was also a fine growl to the horns adding significantly to the texture and made audible because of such lucid balancing. Not surprisingly, all repeats were observed, and the lie was given to the notion that this is Beethoven’s ‘little’ symphony. There were rambunctious contributions from horns and trumpets at the first movement’s close, exceptional finesse in the violin’s scampering passages in the Trio and exuberant comic timing to the finale’s introduction.

If a Beethoven symphony cycle can be measured by the success of those symphonies that are not the ‘Eroica’, Fifth, Pastoral, Seventh and ‘Choral’, then this was a great traversal; perhaps, however, Mackerras’s true achievement has been to demonstrate conclusively that this is not a cycle but nine highly differentiated works, each with its own distinctive character, Beethoven constantly re-inventing himself. (BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the series sequentially every couple of days from 11-27 September.)

For many lovers of Bruckner’s music, the Eighth Symphony represents his most completely achieved work. (Yet, his music has taken time to make its mark; in 1964 I heard the very belated Scottish premiere of this work, conducted by Jascha Horenstein, and which came at the end of a day dominated by Winston Churchill’s funeral.) As usual with Bruckner, textual problems are a minefield. Robert Haas’s 1939 edition of the Eighth conflated two different versions (1887 and 1890), a point Nowak makes much of in his introduction to his 1955 publication: “This edition of the second version of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is exactly as Bruckner wrote it. The course followed by Robert Haas … of reverting to the first version in some passages, has not been pursued … A complete critical edition must not mix its sources.”) Well, as Haas’s successor, Nowak would say that, wouldn’t he? Claiming scholarly rectitude is one thing, and with doubts as to how far Bruckner was ‘pushed’ by well-meaning acolytes – yet there are musical reasons why Haas’s editing works better, particularly in the build-up to the Adagio’s climax.

Whatever the rights and wrongs (but it should be noted that when Blomstedt conducted this work with the Bamberg Symphony recently, he seems to have used Haas’s edition), such matters were put aside given the splendour that the conductor offered on this occasion. It would be easy to find fault with certain details of execution – the first horn had a torrid time with his exposed first movement solo – but this was a performance that grew in stature and conviction with every bar. It also marked a potentially important relationship between the Philharmonia and the still-youthful 79-year-old Blomstedt. The Orchestra has always been at its best in core Austro-German repertoire in which the warmth and balance of its string sections and cultivated polish of the woodwinds pay particular dividends. Christoph von Dohnányi has nurtured these qualities over his years with the Philharmonia; and Blomstedt possesses the sort of unostentatious authority in core repertoire that chimes with the Philharmonia’s essential characteristics; and on this occasion the musicians honoured him with playing of rare commitment.

Yes, there were some miscalculations. The work’s very opening was scarcely pp as marked, especially from the horns, and in the first movement the absence of real pianissimo was also matched by some over-emphatic fffs, which were made worse by the less-than-full house. However, even from the outset there were real compensations. This was Bruckner – conducted from memory – which moved with real certainty, the joins between paragraphs handled with particular subtlety (to wit the descending cello line that ushers in the violins’ second theme), and there was real ferocity, too, at the first movement’s granitic climax. By the scherzo the actual playing had settled down, the repetitions allowed to unfold naturally without over-emphasis and the harp-laden trio – Bruckner’s request for three of them being acknowledged – providing moments of purest magic.

Best of all though were the Adagio and finale. The slow movement was taken very spaciously and was wonderfully sustained, the Philharmonia’s radiant strings of particular benefit here, with the epilogue ‘sung’ in what seemed like an infinitely-extended breath. The finale was delivered with a forward-moving certainty that made light of what can, in other hands, seem like longeurs. By the time of the final peroration, with its combination of themes from the previous movements, was arrived at, Blomstedt unleashed an absolute torrent of sound. Ultimately there could be little doubt that this performance did Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony something like full justice.

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