Commencing almost half-an-hour late because of traffic delays affecting both orchestra and audience, Andris Nelsons’s performance of Bruckner’s mighty Fifth Symphony was the only item on the programme and it held the attention throughout. The Philharmonia Orchestra was on top form – particular strengths being the weighty brass which was superbly blended, providing a unified melodic voice which was not allowed to overpower the strings although there was no holding back of the powerful brazen endings to first and last movements and the Scherzo. There was an awareness of the importance of the timpani – including subtle quieter moments – and in fortissimo they made much impact: superb playing by Antoine Siguré. The strings shaped their melodies with care and achieved wonderfully hushed playing. Woodwind balance was also carefully calculated.
Given a near-ideal Bruckner sound (although some would doubtless have wanted a more resonant acoustic) Nelsons was able to present his interpretation most explicitly. The immensely hushed opening gave way to one eloquently shaped melody after another but because each one was so self-contained, the pulse of the music tended to vary. Nevertheless, the brilliantly powerful final climax of the first movement represented a satisfying summing up.
This flexible approach was far better justified in the Adagio – of great beauty – but the succeeding movements were treated subjectively. Even the Scherzo did not pound forward so urgently as usual although the climactic moments were suitably strong. The bright and lively approach to the Trio was ideal but the huge hauling back of tempo before the final statement of the Scherzo on both occasions engendered somnolence where tension would have been more suitable.
The Finale was full of personalised detail. For example the quirky six-note motif announced at first by the woodwinds slowed over the two final notes; an expressive idea perhaps but on the many subsequent restatements it was played in-tempo. Nor was this the only theme given more than one reading – the grand second subject on strings slowed somewhat on its first appearance but was swifter later on when it re-appears with pizzicato accompaniment. This was a committed account and its many individual details caught the attention in a positive manner but there was no sense of forward drive; however, the great final chorale emerged from the complexities triumphantly – it was thrilling in effect and inner workings could still be heard alongside the immense power of the brass.
Prior to the concert, the Philharmonia gave one of its admirable Music of Today concerts featuring the forty-year-old Austrian composer Bernd Richard Deutsch. Preceded by an illuminating discussion between the composer and Mark van de Wiel (principal clarinet) two challenging works were performed. Mad Dog was inspired by a day in the life of Deutsch’s pet but he was at pains to explain that this is not programme music although the audience is free to interpret some of the sounds as representing panting, barking and straining at the leash. Scoring is for solo strings, woodwinds (including tenor saxophone) and percussion. There is also a prepared piano – which is given an interesting cadenza and otherwise makes an intriguing sound when combined with harp. Red Alert! commences with alarm-like bells, again this is a matter of ‘inspired by’ rather than a portrayal of events. This time originality of timbre within the small ensemble is provided by the use of an accordion, combining with the colourful instrumentation in a convincing way. Mad Dog has moments of humour whereas Red Alert! is rather more aggressive. I suggest that the audience may have greatly enjoyed the original sounds without necessarily understanding the inner meaning of the music, but from his spoken introduction it seems that the composer would be happy with that.