Prom 46: 24th August 2001

Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Symphony No.9 in D minor

NDR Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg conducted by Günter Wand

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The question as to whether Günter Wand would appear at this year’s Proms has been an unofficial theme running through the season so far. With his previous London appearance almost six years ago, and his Chief Guest Conductor-ship of the BBC Symphony Orchestra now an essentially honorary title, you could have been forgiven for thinking his appearance unlikely; yet, as he made his way steadily, with some assistance, to the rostrum this evening, there was a sense of inevitability about his presence – as, indeed, there was about the performances themselves.

Now aged 89, Wand’s gaunt appearance loses any sense of frailty while the music is in progress: a chair resorted to only in the break between the ’scherzo’ and ’adagio’ of the Bruckner. The familiar podium manner – the clear, undemonstrative though often incisive beat, and curving sweep of his left hand to apply expression and co-ordinate ensemble – has changed little overthe years. In one sense, that of timing, the performances have changed little too: though anyone familiar with Wand’s four recorded accounts of the Bruckner (a fifth was recorded on the NDR’s recent tour of Japan and is now available there) will know that changes are always incremental – objectivity, though never detachment, the essence of his interpretations.

Pairing Schubert Eight and Bruckner Nine ’works’ if musical rather than historical connections are brought out. Most conductors would acknowledge that the two completed movements of the Schubert complement each other with uncanny rightness, but few convey this with the certainty of Wand. The ’Allegro moderato’ was trenchantly articulated, woodwind searching in thefirst theme, strings expressively restrained in the second. The sombre tones of cellos and basses reached truly sepulchral depths at the start of the development, capped by the wrenching sense of loss conveyed by the coda. The ’Andante con moto’ was easeful but no easy response. Wand’s natural intensification of its second stage, heightening dynamic contours and emotional contrasts through unobtrusive attention to detail, found fulfilment in the radiant – Tristanesque? – transcendence of the closingbars. Earlier, in the transition back to the first theme, he dweltmomentarily on the horn call that suggests expressive vistas such as those Bruckner would make his own.

Compared to memorable accounts given with the BBCSO a decade and more ago, if Wand’s Bruckner Nine exhibits a consistency of overall timing, this does not tell the whole story – as an interpretation, it now has a substantially different aesthetic focus. Granted, there’s the same restraint in matters of phrasing and expression: not for Wand the knife-edge intensity of Furtwängler, the supplicatory fervour of Giulini, or the Olympian perspective of Karajan. This is Bruckner interpretation whose cumulative majesty is experienced more in the outcome than in the course of performance.

The vast reaches of the opening movement are now integrated, rather than in confrontation. The powerful reiteration of the home key at the peak of the development no longer rends the whole apart, so that the monumental coda, fatalistic rather than tragic, is as one with the fugitive gestures that ushered in the movement 27 minutes before. The Scherzo is now so alive with detail off-the-beat that its ruthless consistency of forward motion seems in danger of being compromised; the trio not so much faster as lighter, even graceful in its dovetailing of expressive detail.

The Adagio was rightly made the heart and soul of the work – not through unwarranted emotion, but by reducing the Brucknerian qualities of melodic line and tonal plane down to their essentials. Whereas earlier performances conveyed a feeling of numbed withdrawal, now there is an overriding sense of acceptance, touching in its humanity. This suggests that Wand has worked through the music’s valediction to an affirmative repose. More than ever before, the symphony felt complete in its incompleteness, concluding in a resignation borne not of uncertainty but of assurance.

It would be wrong not to credit the NDRSO for its part in making this concert a memorable one. Although Wand has not been principal conductor for a decade now, his position as Honorary Life Conductor has ensured his continued influence on the orchestra’s sound and psyche. Strings have a burnished, but never over-homogenised timbre, complemented by plangently defined woodwind and a rounded unanimity of brass tone – horns and Wagner tubas effortlessly suffused in Bruckner; ideal for this repertoire. A fair number of players must be under forty, suggesting they have had the enviable experience of learning their Bruckner at the hands of a master. Yet their collective concentration confirmed that they take nothing in Wand’sinterpretations for granted, resulting in performances of commitment and conviction. A capacity and attentive audience witnessed an evening of music-making exceptional by any standards.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Wednesday, 29 August, at 2 o’clock

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