Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Philarmonia/Nelsons

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Philarmonia/Nelsons

Article excerpt

It used to be said that Bruckner composed the same symphony nine times, whereas, thanks to the comparative frequency of performances now, we know that his nine numbered symphonies are as different from one another as Beethoven's nine. Nothing could make that clearer than the performances of the Fifth and the Ninth given by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Andris Nelsons, three days apart, at the Royal Festival Hall. The Fifth, as befits its stature and length, was given alone. It is Bruckner's most demanding symphony both to listen to and to conduct. Nelsons is still, I think, at an early stage in his Brucknerian pilgrimage, and his account of the work was not a complete success, but then very few are.

Neville Cardus, in an essay on the composer, tells of going to a performance of the Fifth in Salzburg in the 1930s, with Sir Thomas Beecham as his companion. After the third movement Beecham got up to leave, and said to Cardus, 'In the first movement I counted five pregnancies and four miscarriages.' I had something of the same feeling with Nelsons's account, indeed with most performances. What is needed, what only Furtwängler in his 1942 account with the Berlin Philharmonic and a tiny number of other great Brucknerians have managed to provide, is the conviction that this is one of the most original symphonic movements ever written, in which separate musical ideas are baldly offered and temporarily abandoned, an improvisatory feeling gradually giving place to a sense that they are headed for a single goal, which is tentatively achieved at the end of the first movement, but only fully in the paeans that bring the symphony to its glorious end. If Beecham had stayed for the last movement he might have agreed. There aren't many musical works on this scale in which the listener needs to be an active participant in the success of the performance, practising patience in the knowledge that the reward will be commensurate with the effort.

The last time, before this, that I heard the Fifth in the Festival Hall was in the early 1980s, with Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. It was staggering. The richness of the strings in the second theme of the slow movement was so overpowering that it elicited a communal gasp from the audience. But in the end it was overpowering rather than moving. Nelsons could not have got that kind of sound from the Philharmonia, and wouldn't have wanted to. …

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