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Rautavaara and Bruckner: London Philharmonic Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin (conductor), Colin Currie (percussion). Royal Festival Hall. 24.10.2009 (GD)

Rautavaara:  Incantations: Concerto for percussion and orchestra

Bruckner: Symphony No 8 in C minor.

Over recent years I have heard at least two rather disappointing renditions of this symphony from conductors like Dohnanyi and Haitink. But there was nothing disappointing about tonights performance; and from a young French/Canadian who I hardly know! To say that Bruckner's Eighth is a difficult work for any conductor is something of an understatement and I have heard seasoned Brucknerians from the past,   like Jochum and Kempe,  give performances which although good, did not convey the extraordinary grandeur and diversity of the work. Nezet-Seguin has obviously studied the symphony intensely and has thought long and hard about a range of complex interpretative matters. He has also built a rare relationship/rapport with the LPO and has thoroughly rehearsed them. Tonight he convinced me of the superiority of Robert Haas's 1939 edition of the 1890  version of the work over the Novak edition. Although the Novak has its supporters (among them; Harnoncourt, Bohm and Jochum), and arguably a more cogent edition of the finale, the Haas scores with its inclusion of a beautifully reflective bridging passage in the lead up to the massive C major climax of the 'Adagio' third movement; about 17 bars of  music cut in the Novak edition. Tonight this passage sounded absolutely integral to the contour of the vast adagio.

Nezet - Seguin, importantly, observed Bruckner's 'Allegro moderato' marking for the  C minor first movement. There was grandeur, gravitas and drama here which never degenerated into grandiosity. Indeed here, and throughout the whole symphony tempi and tempo relations were meticulously realised, Bruckner’s urgent marking 'bewegt' (with movement) always an underlying and realised actuality.  The huge build up in the first movement to the mid-movement climax, with the opening C minor double-dotted theme blazing out tutti in sharply modulated variants of C minor, was managed with an absolutely rock-like ( should I say Klemperer-like?) hold on the ground bass rhythm; no trace here of histrionics, or agogic accelerandi. The wonderful  sustainedly intense sotto voce passage which follows this climax; with pp trumpets repeating the opening theme over a sustained ppp tremolando in the violas ( 270/271 in the Haas, Eulenburg score), was managed with a clarity I have rarely heard. Indeed the performance was full of details like this, far too often smudged over, and unfortunately far too numerous to go into with the same detail. Nezet-Seguin maintained the 'Allegro moderato' for the C minor second movement scherzo, but, by giving the opening horn/string figure a slightly upward rhythmic inflection, it never dragged. The repetitive tutti one-bar ostinato figurations never sounded plodding, Nezet-Seguin always ensuring sharp and contrasting accents in and between brass and timpani.  In the A flat trio the upper-Austrian sounding 2/4 meter sounded wholly idiomatic. Previously I thought only the Vienna Philharmonic could deliver such Austrian passages authentically, but tonight Nezet-Seguin drew playing from the LPO (especially the string sections) which sounded equally at home!

Bruckner took the trouble to mark the importance of not dragging in the great D flat major adagio. 'Adagio: Fierlich langsam; doch nicht schleppend' means 'Slow and solemn, but not dragging). Nezet-Seguin, much more than many of his older colleagues, maintained this specific tempo indication; a broad,solemn adagio which has a forward and trenchant momentum. Through this pulse, which permeates the adagio, Nezet-Seguin brought to mind the comparison with the pulse underlying the second act of Tristan, more resonantly than is heard in most performances. I have already made reference to the developmental bridge passage which the Haas edition retains; suffice it to mention Nezet- Seguin's superb handling of the sustained and contrasting 3/4 ostinato episode, which pre-figures a similar blazing ostinato sequence in the finale. And also the 4/4 sequence for horns and woodwind, later strings, in the section just before the reprise of the main 'pulsing' theme leading to the complex tonal modulations initiating the developmental progression to the movements grand climax. Special mention should be made too, of the way the beautiful, gradually descending coda was superbly moulded and sustained, with a particularly memorable quasi horn cadenza.

From the whole progression of the opening urgent rhythmic bass figures in C minor, to the blazing C major coda peroration of all preceding motives, the finale was a triumph. Nezet-Seguin managed a basic structural line throughout. But also he managed to interpolate into this line sequences of varying dynamic and harmonic contrast. Nothing sounded static or marmorial. Bruckner’s invention here (some would say over-invention) was superbly moulded into the whole. I could write at length about the many other insights that conductor and orchestra brought to this unique symphonic movement, but I will confine myself to passages like the gigantic C minor tutti ostinato sequence before the movement’s development section, where the trenchant brass and timpani rhythms and accompanying cross-rhythm counterpoint in strings and woodwind had an almost 'modern' feel. And the wonderful sense of  the almost eerie C minor beginning of the coda,and its superb transformation into the C major progressions of the coda.

In this performance I could totally empathise with the great American novelist William Gaddis's characterisation of this coda as '...rising to the heavens...' More than most conductors, Nezet-Seguin emphasised the sheer range of orchestral textures in Bruckner's score. This is not something one usually associates with Bruckner, but those chorales for Wagner tubas really sounded - as did the gently pulsating woodwind variants in the development section. All kinds of contrasting timbres were heard in the strings; from sotto voce counterpoint in the fugato passage preceding the coda, to ppp violin phrases in the long reprise motives in the lead-in to the development section.  Apart from a few horn fluffs, which in no way detracted from the general excellence of the LPO tonight, my only regret was that antiphonal violins were not deployed. But this is really no more than a quibble given the excellence of the performance.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Rautavaara's percussion concerto which was a delight from start to finish with percussionist Colin Currie coordinating an array different percussion instruments, techniques and timbres. The work is in three contrasting movements and although Rautavaara emphasises the melodic line throughout, he contrasts this with in irregular metres and sharp accents which for him denote the 'shamanism' of the upper Siberian and Finnish Lapland regions by which he is still captivated . Most of the work’s themes, whether initiated by orchestra or the percussion soloist, are superbly interrelated and I have seldom heard such an innovative and beautiful percussion concerto. In a strange way (maybe not so strange given Rautavaara's frequent use of quasi chorale figures, and repeated ostinato sequences) the work perfectly complimented the Bruckner symphony.

Geoff Diggines


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