BBC Prom 60: Bach & Bruckner
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Philippe Jordan
Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2016
Bach: Cantata No 82, Ich habe genug; Bruckner: Symphony No 9 in D minor
Such was the power and influence of the period instrument movement that, for several decades, mixed period concerts like just didn’t happen. As the mainstream modern instrument orchestras become more knowledgeable and confident in their ability to play the earlier repertoire, such concerts are less rare nowadays, but this was still a particularly bold pairing of Bach’s moving meditation on death Ich habe genug, with Bruckner’s rather grander final symphony, generally assumed to be his own contemplation on death.
Bruckner dedicated his 9th Symphony to ‘the dear Lord God’. It would appear that the Lord God wasn’t playing ball, as Bruckner died while still composing the massive work, leaving only sketches of the final, fourth, movement. God also seemed to be attending to other things after Bruckner’s death, as those remaining sketches have since been more-or-less completely lost. It was performed here with its three surviving movements, without the various attempts at completing the fourth movement. Although the resulting structure is unusual, it is enormously satisfying, the slow and solemn outer movements framing a lively central Scherzo.
Each movement also has its own oddities, not least with Bruckner’s rather anarchic version of normal symphonic form. The opening movement bubbles over with musical ideas, very loosely forming into traditional sonata form, but not in a way that you would notice. With a complex shifting sequence of harmonies and melodic lines tumbling over each other, it concluding bars hark back to pre-harmonic days with their massive hammered-out open-fifths – a complete detachment from harmony.
The Scherzo picks up on this rather elemental mood, with its pounding rhythms, although its opening chord is a complex as the closing chord of the first movement is simple. It also finished a similar dramatic and emphatic style after venturing into a rather odd Trio section. But it is in the final extended Adagio that Bruckner really seems to hit the heart of his emotional state. Apparently conceived as his own ‘farewell to life’, with its many quotes from earlier works, the intensity of the music belies any attempt at analysis. Jagged interpolations of musical ideas come and go, with few moments of repose until the piece, and the symphony, reaches its extraordinary climax, with a massive and tortured discord.
It is possible that Bruckner (who definitely planned a fourth movement) intended the subsequent gentle coda as a link passage to that now lost movement, rather than as a conclusion to the Adagio, but in its three-movement form it brings the whole colossal symphony to a satisfying conclusion.
A work like this was an enormous challenge to the young musicians of the Munich based Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, with players ranging from just 17 to about 26. Their playing was outstanding, with notable contributions from many individual soloists, notably amongst the woodwind. The typically vast Brucknerian brass section did its duty in fine style. Bruckner’s use of four so-called ‘Wagner tubas’ at key moments during the Adagio was not perhaps his finest moment, but the four horn players coped well with their task of playing them. The enormous battery of string players produced a commendably coherent and rich timbre.
The first part of the concert had been Bach’s 20-minute long cantata, played by a 6,4,3,2,1 format of string players with organ. It was nice to see the oboe soloist, Bernhard Heinrichs (one of the orchestral tutors), come on-stage with the vocal soloist, bass-baritone Christian Gerhaher, rather than just sitting amongst the other players. His playing was excellent: tender, articulate and with more than a nod to historically informed performance. The same cannot really be said about the bass soloist, whose operatic background was little too evident, not least in his unrestrained vibrato. Given that background, his choice of soto voce dynamic was curious, his voice occasionally becoming lost within the subdued sound world of the strings. Their playing was delicate and intimate, with a fine sense of phrasing and baroque bowing. Conductor Philippe Jordan kept a very disciplined control on the players, with over-emphatic gestures that seemed a bit out of place in the Bach (where he conducted both recitatitives), but was perhaps needed for the Bruckner.
For those able to access it, this fine performance is certainly worth finding on the BBC iPlayer.