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Bruckner, Te Deum and Symphony No.9: Anna Leese (soprano), Anna Grevelius (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Håkan Ekenäs (baritone), RCM Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Bernard Haitink, Royal College of Music, 14.10.2005 (MB)

 

 

Bruckner’s great unfinished last symphony and his devotional Te Deum are frequently performed together in concert, though rarely in the order Bernard Haitink chose to present them in, with the Te Deum placed first. And it is probably equally as rare that a performance of it should be so literally ear-shattering as this one was. With orchestra and choir pushing at the seams of the small Concert Hall of the Royal College this performance at least proved aurally thrilling, even if musically it was something of an old-fashioned Leviathan.  Bruckner’s careful setting of the text – with a large amount of repetition – is ideal for clarity but little of that emerged here. While the massed choir of the RCM Chorus relished the opportunities Bruckner gives for marvellous unison passages, it has to be said that the text itself vanished into a sea of sound. Brass were thrillingly incisive throughout, in fact quite pungent in their tone, and the strings sucked up Bruckner’s ostinatos with gritty determination. Haitink himself added a monolithic glory to his conducting of the work, and was aided in doing so by a quartet distinguished enough to make much of Bruckner’s solo writing. Notably good was Andrew Staples’ prominent and lyrically sung second movement and Anna Leese’s cultivated and melodic singing throughout.

Bruckner’s Ninth is a challenge for the best of orchestras and this performance largely achieved what it set out to do. What it didn’t do was become the consolatory work that some performances of it strive for. By placing the Te Deum first (and especially in such a barn-storming performance of it) Haitink made the D minor uncertainty of the symphony more prominent and unsettling. This was Bruckner naked of hope, deprived of an afterlife. It opened magnificently, with splendidly articulate brass and string phrasing, and an almost daring sense of anguish that seemed to highlight Haitink’s atheistic approach to this profound symphony. In part, the hesitancy and nervousness of the RCM Symphony Orchestra seemed ideally suited to Haitink’s conception; but perhaps this was the intention. Bruckner’s last symphony requires a sense of personal spirituality and such a young body of players lacks a lifetime’s values to make much of the personal crisis Bruckner’s last symphony miraculously unravels.

Furtwängler described conducting a Bruckner symphony as like “entering into the boundless” but Haitink takes an opposite view: shorn of the breadth and the mystical this performance bordered on the macabre, especially in the second movement. And this had its problems: string pizzicatos at the very opening were not in unison, and neither was the intonation of the brass solid, something symbolic of a punishingly fast tempi which Haitink felt no need to relax until the Trio. The brutal attack of bow against string which Haitink encouraged from the strings was indeed remorseless, bordering on the psychotic. Perhaps not always as I would like to hear it, but it was acutely menacing.

The grave beauty of the Finale emerged less with a purity of tone, rather a clear-headed directness that seemed more life affirming than the norm. Haitink conjured from his young players some beautifully delineated dynamics, and the strings played with great swagger and depth of sound when needed. The performance culminated in a shattering C sharp minor climax that seared with the kind of angst-ridden terror that crushes the spirit; that it also remained so beautifully controlled was a measure of Haitink’s tight grip over the orchestra. If the coda was not as long-breathed as some it seemed appropriate for a performance that eschewed usual Brucknerian spiritualism.

 

 

Marc Bridle

 

 

 

 

 


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)