Prom 33: The finest Bruckner in years

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony is the neglected runt of the composer’s cycle at the Proms - it has only been played 5 times (once more than the composer’s little known Overture in G minor!) in comparison with the Seventh which has had 22 outings.  What’s more the time the A Minor symphony got an outing at the Proms was in 1968.  I suspect it didn’t really get a wider public appreciation, in the UK at least, until Otto Klemperer recorded it with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1964 and despite fine versions by eminent Bruckner conductors since then the symphony has languished. There have been many versions on disc since the advent of CD - none have hit the mark for me.

It is a plain and simple symphony.  It was never revised by the composer who never heard it played completely: two versions of the score exist formed of the same musical material.   It stands alone amongst his other symphonies in a strange key and its exotic harmonies and like its sibling the Seventh it has a front heavy distribution of material.  But music scholars and Brucknerians alike treasure this symphony for its astounding content: Tovey described it in hallowed and sacred terms and Simpson extolled the marvels of its structure and invention.  It has not had the strength of advocacy in the concert hall that its brothers and sisters have enjoyed - especially not at the Proms and that’s a shame.  The appearance of the Sixth Symphony on the programme at the BBC Proms this year was therefore welcome.  The performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under their chief conductor, Juanjo Mena.

In November 2011 Mena gave a concert in Manchester that comprised the first part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the Sixth Symphony of Bruckner.  I listened spellbound.  For the first time since those recordings from Klemperer and Karajan I was hearing majestic Bruckner which unfolded in a natural way but which created space and time for those immense climaxes without sounding mannered.  It was a revelation to hear a conductor whom I associated with French and Spanish classics holding an audience completely transfixed in a Bruckner Adagio that they hardly knew.  And he repeated the feat in Salford in June with a reading of similar sweep and detail.  So I knew the Proms performance would at least establish whether those glorious BBC Philharmonic Brass tones - so subtly blended and yet so distinct - was a trick of the sound engineer - I’m delighted to say they are not.

Mena teacher in Bruckner - and much else besides I guess - was the great Rumanian conductor, Sergie Celibadache.  He caressed his audience with performances of incredible intensity and detail and - it has to be said - incredible length too. It was heavenly - but sometimes the thread was dropped in his longeurs and everything then became a trial.  Mena is a Bruckner conductor who has found the trick of extracting the same ecstatic glory from Bruckner without having to pause on every note.  And he shares Celibache’s ear for balancing the strings, winds and brass with an engineer’s precision to get a sound of the highest tensile strength but with delicacy and optimal beauty.  And teh orchestra knows that in his hands they make such mouth watering, tear inducing, chest filling noise that listeners sit and bask in the sound.  It is Bruckner for our age, Bruckner re-discovered and Bruckner so compelling it will bring new listeners to this symphony and hopefully all teh others.

In brief the performance delicately shades the opening themes of the first movement without deflecting the course of the symphony.  The approach to the recapitulation - the most Beethovenian coup de grasse in all of Bruckner’s output is not rush and its culmination is not forced.  The fourth movement is all about the rugged high speed climb to a single summit of the work, woven with material from the first movement.  Like the finale of the First symphony this movement benefits from speed, drive and transparency of lines.  The scant material opens up when we hear how themes are thrown about: it doesn’t always do to be delicate with Bruckner.  The third movement has a terrific drive but an almost Wagnerian ferocity at the height of the Scherzo and the Trio saw Mena dancing on the podium and his players responding with a lightness of touch which was exquisite but never indulgent.  This is a Jaguar of a symphony at its most graceful and powerful.  But the Adagio is something else - I have never - in my days of hearing the BPO under Karajan, the Leningrad Philharmonic under Jansons, the Vienna Phil, the London Orchestras or any other band - heard a brass section play with the sensitivity, balance and full bodied sound that the BBC Philharmonic players produce under Mena in the Adagio - and that’s all I can say because the performance itself left me, tearful and speechless.  I’m am SO glad I heard it and that the BBC captured it in sound and vision.  Asking fellow prommers in the hall and looking at Twitter later, I can only agree that this performance was one of the finest Bruckner readings and realisations, if not the finest, that many of us had ever heard. Or are likely to hear.

I can’t praise it highly enough: words are inadequate.  Go listen and or watch on BBC iPlayer.  The Guardian critic du jour said the performance lost its way - my own feeling was that critic hadn’t a clue about the symphony - but you decide.

Final thought: the BBC Philharmonic are working their way through Bruckner symphonies with Mena in Manchester - on this performance they will be the hottest tickets in town. I hope with the zeal of a missionary that these will be released on CD. 

{you may want to go get a cup of tea or a beer now}

The programme of Prom 33 began with what was billed as Act 1 Prelude from Tristan und Isolde - but that wasn’t quite the case.  It was more of an overture.  Mena chose a concert version written by Wagner which tacked wisps and taints of the operas ending onto a slightly truncated prelude.  It was well played with lovely work by the BBC Philharmonic violas and celli adding depth to their lines which shone through even in the huge hall.  Oddly applause was parsimonious - perhaps the Prommers were puzzled by the ending.

One of the great pleasures of the Proms is hearing first performances of new music.  The first half of the Prom was completed with a World Premier of Credo by James Macmillan.  Macmillan’s work is familiar to so many now its hard to think of him as anything but an established master of composition in so many genres.  But I’m still struck at how young he is.  Credo is for orchestra and choir - or in this case three choirs (all making their Proms debut) the Manchester Chamber Choir, Northern Sinfonia Chorus and the Rushley Singers.

It bounds about the place with vigour and a kind of unnerving uncertainty - but always clear sighted of its liturgical content and context.  Its short movements quickly setting distinct moods and incorporating familiar signatures from the composer - ostinato percussion and brass, from other composer’s (there’s a hint of Messiaen about the birdsong) there’s some modern and ancient forms in teh choral writing too.  And there are as usual with Macmillan distracting moments of simple breathtaking beuaty such as teh interlude for three solo violas.

With a world premiere its always hard to hear how anyone else could have done it better than Mena his orchestra and choir.  The rhythms were incisive and so often the music takes a real and unexpected bite.  I loved it and heard it two or three times more through iPlayer.  It is a piece which has a great deal of popular accessible within it and darker facets which come alive at successive auditions.  One would hope it gets picked up by other conductors.  The choirs and orchestra were fantastic.

If I don’t hear another prom this year this concert would be enough for me.  The way it lit up Twitter and the faces of the Prommers up high in the Gallery with me.  I can confirm the BBC Philharmonic are playing like gods at the moment - I can’t wait for the pairing’s next item.


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