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City of London Festival 2009 -Bruckner and Pärt: London Symphony Orchestra, Valeri Gergiev, St Paul’s Cathedral, 9.7.2009 (TB)

Symphony No. 9
Pärt: Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten 

St Paul’s Cathedral was packed for this concert of music by Arvo Pärt and Bruckner, promoted under the auspices of the City of London Festival. It was a thoughtfully chosen programme for two reasons. First, the venue demanded music of religious and devotional outlook, with nothing of the circus about it. Second, and at least as important, with its enormous dome St Paul’s must have one of the most ruinous acoustics imaginable, and some compositions might survive it better than others.

If any orchestral music comes into these categories, these two compositions can surely be placed towards the top of the list. The concert began with Pärt’s Cantus, a short but deeply felt piece scored for strings and bell. The performance was notable for its atmosphere, and immediately one of Gergiev’s strengths as a conductor was immediately apparent: he demanded the concentration of both orchestra and audience. The initial bell sounds were barely audible and the music grew gradually in sonority. However, the acoustic prevented the richly satisfying climax of the piece from making its full effect, even for those of us grateful to be seated among the front section beneath the dome. At the close Gergiev held the audience spellbound with his arms aloft, treating the ensuing silence as part of the performance. Others should learn from him.

And so to Bruckner. Dedicated to ‘My Dear God’, the Ninth Symphony began with a wonderful sense of atmosphere; but to those seated towards the rear of the audience, hundreds of yards away, it made much less impression. The first climax grew from these auspicious beginnings, but when the note values shortened and the rhythms tightened so the impact became lost in acoustical mud. The resonant blocks of the climax itself made their mark, but here and throughout the vast space of St Paul’s denied a genuine fortissimo. The lyrical flow of the second subject gesängperiod was perfectly judged, but Bruckner’s careful and rewarding balancing of the string textures suffered, and great moments such as the special projection of the cello line went for almost nothing. Strangely enough, the woodwinds sounded best in this context, and the LSO’s principal oboe was on particularly fine form, a contribution that proved a highlight of the occasion. The first movement was compellingly shaped by Gergiev, whose decisions regarding phrasing and tempi always seemed appropriate. The orchestral playing was dedicated and disciplined, and the great coda resonated around the building.

Once the sound had died away to silence, a proportion of the audience began to applaud, whereupon Gergiev raised his hand and they ceased. The scherzo was suitably dark, thundering its way in the tuttis with cavernously imposing contributions from the timpani, but little or no cutting edge of course. The lighter scoring of the trio allowed a faster tempo and again the woodwinds were very fine.

With its true Adagio tempo, the finale brought forth a clear exposition of Bruckner’s extended lines and his gradually unfolding vision. The various themes were expounded with clarity but with symphonic purpose too, and the orchestral sound itself, with Wagner tubas and trumpets asserting their presence, never lacked interest. The results were satisfying, though not as galvanising as a genuine fortissimo presentation of the death motif would have been. As such the emphasis moved towards the consoling lines of the wonderful string music, until the radiant music of E major brought the symphony to its beautiful and visionary conclusion.

Thus Bruckner survived this encounter with one of the least helpful of acoustics. The Ninth Symphony will have given different members of the audience different experiences, in large measure determined by how far away the were seated and how much of the sound disappeared into the vast space of the dome above the orchestra. It was clear that many among the audience were there because it was ‘a concert in St Paul’s’, and would have known little about either composer. Therefore the complete lack of supporting information and documentation in the bulky festival programme book - admittedly given out free – served the music and the occasion poorly.

Gergiev and the LSO had prepared a fine performance of the Ninth Symphony, which would be well worth hearing again, particularly in circumstances which would allow for details to make their significant contribution to the whole experience and to Bruckner’s extraordinary vision.

Terry Barfoot


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