Philharmonia Concert – 3rd June

Violin Concerto in A major (K219)
Symphony No.8 in C minor (1890 version, edited Nowak)

Gil Shaham (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: James Larcombe

Reviewed: 3 June, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The first movement of the concerto is marked ’Allegro moderato’. This seemed to be forgotten at the outset, though the pace did settle to allow the radiance of Shaham’s playing to be fully appreciated. Given Shaham’s generous renditions of romantic repertoire, it was good to hear him scaling down his sound to blend with Mozart’s smallish orchestra and light textures. The ’Adagio’ was perhaps too long-drawn, although expressive warmth and the intimacy created by some heart-stopping pianissimos was compelling; the finale’s outer elegance was vividly contrasted by the bizarre ’Turkish’ episode. With orchestral playing spirited and buoyant, this was a delightful performance.

What a fascinating character Bruckner must have been! Born into the quiet of Austrian rural life, then thrown into the milieu that was nineteenth-century Vienna, his music suffered incomprehension from friends and hostility from critics. Yet he enjoyed dancing late into the night and having a few beers along the way!

Had Bruckner lived to finish his Ninth Symphony, it would have been the summation of everything he had come to represent in music. As it was, time ran out, and the Eighth is his last completed symphony; I almost wrote landscape – in its sound, Bruckner’s music creates panoramic vistas. By the time of No.8, Bruckner’s concept of symphonic form had become more elastic. In the Eighth’s first movement there are several oases of calm – for example the duet between oboe and horn from bar 140 – with the capacity, as in this concert, to transport the listener to a different world.

For the colossal Eighth Symphony there are three scores to choose from – the rarely performed 1887 original as edited by Leopold Nowak or the familiar 1890 version published either by Robert Haas (who incorporates material from 1887), or Nowak’s, which is more faithful to Bruckner’s (perhaps coerced) cuts and emendations. Maazel, as he does on his excellent EMI recording, opted for the latter – effectively what the Eighth’s first audience heard in 1892 (more or less). Haas – believing his edition reflected what Bruckner himself would have done if he had not been influenced by friends and disciples – prepared a collation of 1887/90 for publication in 1939; Nowak’s ’purer’ 1890 copy became available in 1955. Bruckner conductors are divided: Boulez, Haitink, Karajan and Wand play Haas; Celibidache, Giulini, Harnoncourt and Maazel opt for Nowak.

In this superb Philharmonia Orchestra performance, a palpable tension was generated from the outset. Lorin Maazel, in complete control, never allowed the concentration to drop, and was richly rewarded by the Philharmonia’s commitment, focus and ensemble. Having steered a spacious and dramatic course to the first movement’s anguished pinnacle, Maazel’s handling of the closing measures – where the sound ebbs away – was masterly; without the intrusion of an unnecessary ritardando on the final bar, Maazel (unlike most of his colleagues) ensured that the clock stopped.

Bruckner said the scherzo is a depiction of ’German Michael’, a folk hero; indeed, you can picture him with his great strides pounding across the countryside. Maazel, emphatic and powerful in the outer sections, allowed – as the score indicates – no pause either side of the Trio, which although marked ’Langsam’ (slow) flowed-along here, convincingly so, especially as Maazel ensured a relationship of pulse between the two sections. The slow movement’s second theme – a glorious ’cello melody – found the Philharmonia at its most glowing. Despite a very heated response to the slow movement’s passionate outbursts – offset by one breathtaking drop to pianissimo that bordered on the inaudible – and notwithstanding that melodrama threatened as it grew close, Maazel elicited a through-line to a stunning climax with exquisite timing.

The finale is perhaps the most difficult movement to bring off – it looks very sectional on the page – but it’s quite something once the blazing, brass-dominated, opening has initiated the journey (timpanist Andrew Smith in fine form here). Maazel negotiated Bruckner’s structural flaws with more success than most. Having constantly kept the end in sight, Maazel raised the roof with the ultimate peroration, awe-inspiring, as themes from all four movements blazed out, lucidly balanced here. The Philharmonia found something extra for this summit-reaching conclusion – a Bruckner 8 to remember.

  • The Philharmonia’s next RFH concert is on 14 June, Roger Norrington conducting Mozart and Mahler
  • This concert is preceded at 6p.m. by Music of Today – a portrait of Deirdre Gribbin (click here to read an interview with the composer) – free admission to RFH, no ticket required
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
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