Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – 1st November

Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor
Symphony No.5 in B flat

Priya Mitchell (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Bachmann

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 November, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Robert Bachmann and I would no doubt agree on the greatness of Bruckner’s music; we would not agree, I suspect, on how it should be presented.Whenever Bachmann comes to London it’s to conduct the RPO; invariably he includes Bruckner, certainly in the last few years (at the Barbican). This was his third traversal of the Fifth; he has also conducted numbers 7, 8 (the original 1887 version) and 9 (with the ‘unfinished’ finale as now realised by Samale, Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca). As a regular contributor to “The Bruckner Journal” I have reported on all these concerts, except that of No.8. While I acknowledge Bachmann’s dedication to Bruckner, there has been a consistent, disfiguring aspect to all his renditions – excessively loud brass.

I do not otherwise associate this style with the RPO. There were a few occasions during this performance when he gestured to the trumpets and trombones for less – virtually ignored – yet during tuttis the brass was so dominant that woodwind and strings need not have bothered. Any chance of fully appreciating Bruckner’s top-to-bottom ‘organ’ scoring of his harmony is thus rendered null and void. Fine if you can only respond to primary colours and dynamic excess, anathema if you know the music. Anyone hearing this symphony for the first time would have a very one-sided and limited impression of the music’s range.

It’s not just the brass’s volume, it’s also the tone – hard and snarling. Although London hears less of the RPO these days, these negative qualities only seem to appear with Bachmann. I am aware of opinions – ones to be respected – that suggest brass players generally are too loud, which certainly has substance, or that the appropriate height of platform ‘riser’ will help the balance, or that quadruple woodwind will ‘fill out’ against the brass (it was double winds here). Could not, at rehearsal, Mr Bachmann simply ask for less power and warmer sound? Perhaps what was offered at this and previous concerts is what Bachmann requires.

While I appreciate the Bruch is good box-office, Bruckner alone would have been sufficient; and more rehearsal of it would have benefited the finale’s fugue, here ‘touch and go’. Priya Mitchell begun well, romantic and intense, and carried on in this vein. Too much so: Bruch needs more variety, certainly something restrained and confidential. She had her moments, the poise and warmth of the ‘Adagio’ for example, here convincingly broad, but she went for broke with the finale; with it went good intonation and bow control. She’s a gutsy and open-hearted player but needs to unwind. The accompaniment had some telling moments, but here we go again, the brass, specifically the four horns – every note was singled out; in full passages they dominated the scene to a ludicrous extent. RPO policy or conductorial intent?

Bachmann’s Bruckner-interpretation was, respectively by movement, impetuous, too slow, too fast and resolute. The ‘Adagio’ dragged – something this slow needs more resonance than the RFH offers, or the acoustic genius of Celibidache to sustain it. Moments of repose and dance-related material was sensitively handled; at times Bachmann can be persuasive and idiomatic. For the rest of this long symphony, that is bars marked forte and fortissimo featuring the brass … forget it.

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