Thomas Trotter/CBSO/Nikolaj Znaider – Symphonies by Ruders & Bruckner

Symphony No.4. ‘An Organ Symphony’ [Feeney Trust co-commission: UK premiere]
Symphony No.7 in E [Edition not specified]

Thomas Trotter (organ)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Nikolaj Znaider

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 December, 2011
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

This concert featured symphonies by composers for whom the organ was central to their musical development. That said, Bruckner avoided original composition for the instrument in favour of performance and improvisation, while Poul Ruders has written precious little for it since his earliest days as a composer.

Ruders’s Fourth Symphony (2010) was premiered earlier this year in Dallas and subsequently given in Odense. Its subtitle might lead one to expect a work in the lineage of Saint-Saëns or even Copland, but what emerges is far subtler – the organ writing integrated into the orchestral fabric to a degree such that, were one not present (and, moreover, able to watch the soloist’s dexterity at a console placed adjacent to the orchestra rather than to the rear of the platform), it would frequently be hard to distinguish a concertante part which is almost too ingeniously embedded in the overall texture: virtuosity, it seems, residing in the detail rather than the gesture.

Formally, too, An Organ Symphony offers its fair share of surprises. The first two movements are reversed during the process of composition, so that a restrained yet expectant ‘Prelude’ (with some telling use of the organ’s voix celeste register) is followed by a ‘Cortège’ which gradually sheds its processional feel to finish as a propulsive toccata with some agile interplay between organ and orchestra. Somewhere between scherzo and intermezzo, the ‘Etude’ that follows is a study in quicksilver activity; deft preparation, no doubt, for the final ‘Chaconne’ that is much the longest movement – its self-effacing theme running across the texture while the music passes through a sequence of variations as momentum increases towards the energetic peroration and a closing, almost offhand flourish. Scintillatingly rendered by Thomas Trotter with attentive support from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the work might yet prove a notable addition to a notably selective genre.

A further positive was the direction of Nikolaj Znaider, now embarked on a parallel career as a conductor. He presided over an account of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony which, if it yielded little in the way of fresh insights, was none the less satisfying in overall cohesion and consistency. The first movement was finely if just a little temperately delivered, yet the sudden crisis of the development lacked nothing in intensity, while the coda – underpinned by powerful timpani –thrillingly clinched the musical process. Although it may not quite have plumbed the ultimate in emotional depth, the Adagio was securely shaped on its way to an eloquent Nowak cymbal-capped climax then a coda that mingled pathos and resignation to moving effect. Lithe but also robust, the scherzo had a tensile rhythmic strength that was not quite maintained in its slightly flaccid trio, while the finale – intently launched – lost its way slightly in the later stages (intonation between horns and Wagner tubas similarly faltering at this point), but the coda capped the whole work with undeniable conclusiveness. On this basis, Bruckner is a composer with whom Znaider has undoubted empathy and one looks forward to his thoughts on other of the symphonies.

What a pity, then, that the main drawback affecting this performance was the faint yet persistent buzzing, emerging towards the end of the first movement, which was continually evident thereafter. An electrical fault or feedback seems unlikely, leaving an errant hearing aid as the most obvious possibility. Quite how to tackle such a problem (hardly unknown in concerts) without causing embarrassment is unclear, but tackled it must be if live music-making of this calibre is not to be blighted. Certainly your reviewer was not the only audience member who found it a constant distraction.

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