Edinburgh International Festival – Beethoven 6 & Bruckner 4

Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [Bruckner-Schalk-Löwe revision, 1886-1887]

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 22 August, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

A further instalment of Sir Charles Mackerras’s absorbing exploration of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra drew a performance of the ‘Pastoral’ of real distinction.

It is no easy matter to force us to listen to a work so familiar as this with completely fresh ears, but this is precisely what Mackerras and his long-term orchestra-partner achieved. We tend to think of the symphonies as a cycle, yet the remarkable truth is that each symphony is so different from its predecessor, Beethoven constantly re-inventing himself.

The ‘Pastoral’ is the first real ‘programme’ symphony, and this performance undoubtedly got to the heart of the matter in its exploration of the sounds and above all of the emotions induced by close contact with the natural world. However Beethoven’s own comments about the Pastoral are revealing. “The work can be grasped without description, it is feeling rather than tone painting and tone-painting when pushed too far loses its value”. Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s real achievement lay precisely in the way this performance succeeded in communicating the emotions behind the notes whilst at the same time generating a genuine symphonic tension and giving the work its full symphonic stature; a remarkable balancing feat.

What was also notable was the sheer amplitude of sound achieved by a ‘chamber’ orchestra of about 50 musicians; and, as expected with Mackerras, violins were antiphonal, valve-less trumpets employed and timpani were played with hard sticks. In the ‘Storm’ and especially at the finale’s joyous culmination there was, for once, truly enveloping and ecstatic. There was also a greater-than-normal transparency and finesse in the string sound – the texture of the strings’ accompaniment to the ‘Scene by the Brook’ was quite magical, and the articulation of the strings in ‘Peasants Merrymaking’ was deliciously pointed. Throughout the SCO’s superb woodwinds sang out sweetly and with an almost Klemperer-like immediacy. The clarinet at the slow movement’s close has seldom sounded more like a real cuckoo and the flute really resembled a nightingale. (I am less up on the quail, the oboe.) A wholly memorable traversal of the ‘Pastoral’, then, with Mackerras, in his ‘Indian Summer’, relishing every moment.

Later in the evening – after Richard Goode had played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer (this was another of the Edinburgh Festival’s three £10 events on one evening) – the concert of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony proved to be rather important for it marked the Festival’s debut of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and its music director Stéphane Denève and gave a now-rare opportunity to hear the 1886-7 revision made by Bruckner with the heavy involvement of Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe, the version in general use prior to the Second World War.

I first got to know this wonderful music 50 years ago from a set of 78s of the Schalk-Löwe version conducted by Karl Böhm and first heard the symphony live in the Usher Hall with the (pre-Royal) Scottish National Orchestra under the great Jascha Horenstein. In those days Bruckner performances were few and generally sparsely attended, so – having first bribed them with a free meal at my flat – I then took twenty-five University friends to the performance. Later when Jascha (I had the good fortune to know him) heard that I had fed and paid for part of the audience to come and hear him conduct Bruckner he was vastly amused. Happily on this current occasion the Usher Hall was considerably more full.

Bruckner completed the symphony in 1874 and made a further version (including a new scherzo) that was completed in 1880 which was performed by Hans Richter with the Vienna Philharmonic the following year. There were then some small revisions for the New York premiere (under Anton Seidl) and, lastly, in 1886-7 this further revision that was published in 1890 – but Bruckner refused to sign the copy sent to the printer. Subsequently the Bruckner Society published editions based on the 1880 version, initially by Robert Haas (in 1936) and Leopold Nowak (in 1975), as well as Nowak’s edition of the 1886 revision (in 1953).

Further complexities include the fact that we cannot know for sure the extent of Bruckner’s complicity in the Schalk-Löwe version conducted by Denève – one imagines that Bruckner was reluctant (given him not signing the printer’s copy) – and there is also the question of the date of the first Bruckner Society edition, which is from 1936 and was produced under the editorship of Haas, who was a member of the Nazi party. Did the fact that Schalk and Löwe were Jewish have any bearing on the choice of the 1880 version rather than its 1886 revision?

Suffice it to say that Denève clearly believes passionately in the 1890 publication on purely musical grounds and in this radiant performance made the strongest possible case for it. Given a performance of this conviction, the 36-bar cut in the finale and the foreshortening of the scherzo seemed not to matter.

By comparison with its slightly rough-and-ready playing of Bruckner 3 for Herbig a few nights previously, the RSNO was a band transformed for its new chief. Having felt a certain disappointment with this team’s Berlioz Symphonie fantastique at the Proms, it was hugely gratifying to hear them do full justice to the music with warm, focussed string playing, an excellent first horn in David McLenaghan, secure wind-playing and notably mellow brass. This was the quietest, least hectoring Bruckner heard in a long time with Denève teasing out many moments of gentleness and frequently holding the music on the finest thread. The viola’s long, unwinding threnody in the slow movement was especially memorable. Set against these restrained dynamic levels, the great climaxes reared up with quite exceptional power, the endings of the first and last movements achieving an overwhelming impact.

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