Although a student orchestra, the RCM seldom choose
programmes which are easy options. Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is an
Everest of the repertoire, a work which many professional orchestras
find difficult enough to navigate, let alone a student body. To couple
this with a first half which included Mozart arias and an overture displayed
a level of courage to shame some of this orchestra’s more illustrious
colleagues. Concerts with just Bruckner’s Eighth are all too common
experiences in the concert hall.
The performance of the Bruckner was often quite fascinating,
although this was by far one of the most unsubtle, even wilful interpretations
I have witnessed live. Vassily Sinaisky set torrential
tempi, much as Mravinsky used to do in this work, tempi which were oddly
appropriate given the elemental weather which at one staged threatened
to besiege the temporary calm of the Adagio. However, this was
by no means a seamless traversal of the score, with ensemble unravelling
quite alarmingly at times; taken as a whole, however, this did not entirely
matter when the playing was both so fresh and so spontaneous. You will
listen in vain to hear tremolo string playing as caustic as it was here,
the figurations taken as if every string player were doing a devil’s
dance. In part, this was the reason why the upper strings retained a
somewhat steely tone (some terse and short bow lengths dominated), particularly
when compared with the ‘cellos and basses which were often burnished
and dense in tone. Indeed, throughout the symphony the low strings provided
a truly sonorous experience and they added magical warmth to a performance
which constantly tried to shy away from the spiritual.
During the first movement this ‘temporality’ set the
predominant mood: prosaic wind playing (in part emphasised by the fact
it was often not tripled) and brass which were somewhat muddied in texture.
Sinaisky took an ambivalent attitude towards dynamics – at times quite
intent on producing hushed playing, at others, like Toscanini, intent
on breaking the recording equipment so ferocious were the triple fortes.
His handling of the first entry of the harps in the Adagio, for
example, was done with a sublime touch: they literally appeared like
angels, so ethereal was their playing. Woodwind, so plain in the first
two movements, here had a radiance of tone (and sublime breath control)
and the Wagner tubas, intonation problems apart, produced a magnificent
boldness of sound. The strings were generally sonorous throughout –
although an occasional ‘flatness’ to the violins, and noticeable problems
with pitch, blemished the movement at the beginning. Most striking was
a magnificent climax to the Adagio in which everything was in
place. It was truly thrilling. Double basses achieved astonishing depth
of tone, rumbling like a tremor or aftershock, and the closing pages
of the movement brought playing of refinement and beauty. The final
movement was unleashed with terrifying power – almost as if the hounds
of hell were on the rampage. Trumpets and trombones were thrilling,
and the attaca playing on the cellos was lastingly memorable. The great
coda – one of the miracles of western music – was splendidly conceived,
although I would have wished for greater security in the brass. In an
imperfect world, however, this is as good as it gets.
This was a performance which eschewed the granitic
strength of a Viennese interpreter, opting instead for something far
more visceral. As played here the symphony was underpinned by a terrifying
clarity, and shifted its moods constantly as if embedded on quicksand.
What made this very special, despite, or in spite of, the technical
faults, was the sheer belief of these players in their conductor’s vision.
It really was extraordinarily fresh and I believe every one of these
young musicians was captivated by the experience of playing this great
symphony. I doubt they will ever do so again, but they should be congratulated
for firing the imagination of this critic.
I do wonder, however, how different this performance
might have sounded in another acoustic. Playing Bruckner’s grandest
symphony in a hall only slightly bigger than the Wigmore Hall poses
all sorts of problems for balance and clarity. Occasionally this performance
seemed to be suffocated by its own power. I was reminded of trying to
squeeze a shark into a goldfish bowl.
Sinaisky started this concert with Mozart’s Overture
to Così fan tutte. Big-boned playing, with a grand sound,
showed how wonderfully refined this orchestra can be, but I wished the
performance had hinted more at lightness of touch than an inclination
towards heavy handedness. Julianne de Villiers then sang two
arias – from Idomeneo and Clemenza. She has a warm, rich
sound which quite easily fills the RCM without strain, but a certain
nervousness prevented her from giving a fully coloured reading of these
not insubstantial pieces. At times, Parto, parto seemed to lie
a bit too high in the register for this voice to do the aria full justice,
but there is no doubting that this voice has an agility too infrequently
heard in mezzo range.