Symphony No.7 in E
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 5 July, 2005
Venue: St Paul's Cathedral, London
Taking the description literally that Bruckner’s symphonies are“cathedrals in sound”, the City of London Festival made a bold move by programming Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony in the cavernous surroundings (now looking disconcertingly – and surely incongruously – garish after an expensive facelift) of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The programme note asserted that “Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony is naturally at home in the great surrounding spaces of St Paul’s”.
I’m not at all sure about this. Bruckner, with his devout devotion tothe Catholic Church would, almost certainly, have balked at the notion at one of his ‘secular’ works being given at a (paying) concert in a sacred place.
Moreover, he surely did not conceive his symphonies for performance in anything other than a ‘traditional’ concert hall.
These caveats aside, Bruckner’s mighty symphonic edifice most certainly made an impression, and as a purely aural and acoustical experience, this was an immensely impressive occasion.
With gestures and facial expressions alarmingly akin to those deployed by Sir Simon Rattle, a baton-less Mark Elder steered the orchestra of which he is currently Music Director level-headedly through Bruckner’s variegated landscape with a sureness of purpose which was, in itself, convincing.
Whether the overall interpretation would have been different in another place is impossible to determine, but, taken in its own terms, and taking into account the inherent acoustic peculiarities, Bruckner’s symphonic thoughts were undeniably conveyed in a quite compelling manner.
The principal drawback was that of balance. Too often, the brassoverwhelmed the remainder of the orchestra at climaxes. I don’t know how much rehearsal time was possible in St. Paul’s, but I cannot help thinking that more guidance from the podium encouraging restraint would have ensured that the other elements might have been rendered audible. For instance, at the conclusion of the first movement, the strings’ important figuration was simply not heard, in spite of the visible efforts of the players.
The symphony started with an almost uncanny sense of mystery and exploration; the Hallé’s cellos sounding remarkably rich and full. What was apparent, though, and remained so throughout, was a distinct lack of quiet playing. Whether or not this was due to a perceived need to project throughout a vast space, the frequent pianissimo passages registered to this listener – about halfway down the nave – as a healthy mezzo-forte. Thus, the quivering anticipations that Bruckner places at strategic points, were somewhat minimised. Certainly, the climaxes blazed magnificently, but not having arisen from hushed preparation, the danger of Bruckner’s structure being deemed ‘sectional’ was not wholly averted, here and in the last movement.
The Adagio was, perhaps predictably, the most successful, withElder providing plenty of space for Bruckner’s measured harmonicmovement to make its full effect. There was some intonation difficulties in the lower brass, but there was also some noble playing which ensured that this glowing, elegiac music was properly delivered and positively enhanced by the acoustic. A big,rich climax was striven for and achieved, even if the culminating cymbal clash was devoid of impact and the triangle inaudible.But the ‘Wagner’ tubas made for a solemn, processional entity, and the coda of this movement conveyed real profundity.
If this Adagio was the highpoint, then, perhaps also inevitably, the scherzo was the least effective. It was not possible for a ‘sehrschnell’ tempo to be maintained, though the inexorable tread Elder elicited was not without benefits, not least in the weighty, brass-saturated climaxes. But rhythmic acuity was sacrificed, and more pointed projection and articulation would have enabled Bruckner’s lines to register more strongly. The trio was marred by some uncertainty of the basic pulse and by a much too weighty overall sonority.
The finale did not entirely capture the sense of symphonic material drawing to an inevitable conclusion, but the various episodes were well characterised and one could not doubt, in the end, that a difficult traversal had been undertaken and that an optimistic destination had been reached. Whatever the singularities of presenting this particular work in this particular place, it was undeniably instructive – and, at times, moving –to hear Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony being played with conviction inside St Paul’s Cathedral: one of the last places in which the composer would have imagined his non-liturgical music being performed.