The lady behind me on Kensington Gore clearly felt that she owed her friend an apology: ‘It’s Bruckner. I don’t know how that happened.’ I felt for her. ‘It’s Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Phil,’ I’d told a succession of my own musical friends. They’d seemed interested. Since the youngish Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin took over at the New York Metropolitan Opera, he’s vaulted on to the A-list, and while the Rotterdam Philharmonic isn’t a super-orchestra, exactly, people do dimly recall that it was conducted by Valery Gergiev, back when that was still something to boast about. So, the inevitable question: what are they playing? And with one word — Bruckner — the shutters slammed down. I was going to this one alone.
It’s genuinely odd, the effect Bruckner has on some music-lovers — even hardcore Germanophiles who collect Gurrelieders like they’re Pokémon cards, and argue in all seriousness that no, you really can’t have too much Mahler. You either feel that Bruckner wrote the profoundest symphonies since Beethoven, or that it’s all just blunt inarticulate noise and unbearably long, to boot. Any middle ground is vanishingly rare. It’s as if Bruckner generates a sort of cognitive dissonance: that a symphonist can simultaneously be as tender as Schubert and as oceanic as Wagner. Does not compute. And yet there are pieces by Bruckner — the Seventh Symphony, the String Quintet — that flood the heart with their very first notes.
The Fourth (Romantic) Symphony is almost an entry-level example. Out of silence, shimmering violins open up limitless vistas: a solo horn calls yearningly in the distance. ‘At no time ought it to have been possible not to recognise that the opening of the Romantic Symphony is a thing of extraordinary beauty and depth,’ wrote Donald Tovey back in the 1930s, to which I can only respond: yes, a hundred times yes. So perhaps Nézet-Séguin and his team will have made some converts. Certainly, the Royal Albert Hall appeared full, and it’s unlikely that anyone will have made the trip for the sake of Liszt’s creaky Second Piano Concerto, even with the pearlescent sound of Yefim Bronfman as soloist.
No, this was about the Bruckner, and Nézet-Séguin clearly grasps one essential truth: that Bruckner’s real power lies in his gentleness. It’s easy enough to let the brass blaze in one of his massive, cliff-face tuttis, though I suspect that’s precisely why some listeners perceive Bruckner as cold or bombastic. Nézet-Séguin must have realised that it wouldn’t suit the narrow-bore, pewter-like tone of his Dutch trombones and trumpets either. Instead, he let the big climaxes rise gradually out of a rolling landscape: the result was that they sounded more than ever like congregational hymns.
No one could call this a virtuosic performance, but the Rotterdam strings breathed and phrased together, and their scuffed, lived-in ensemble sound had an autumnal warmth. They built a space for quiet confidences — bass pizzicatos as soft as heartbeats, and questioning, meltingly sweet woodwind solos that created that peculiar Bruckner sensation of intimacy amid a vast solitude. This wasn’t a roof-raising Romantic Symphony, but it was a very human one. Sufficient to convince the Brucknersceptics? ‘Just. Don’t. Get. It,’ wrote one listener on Twitter afterwards. I don’t know what I expected.
The Berlin Philharmonic, of course, delivered exactly what was expected, on one level at least: a luxurious, all-enveloping depth and breadth of tone that demonstrated, with the first glowing string chords of Dukas’s La Péri, that even under their inscrutable chief conductor designate Kirill Petrenko they’re still the classiest act in the business. Simon Rattle’s legacy to the BPO — transparency coupled with needlepoint precision — is still very audible, and Petrenko and his players matched Yuja Wang phrase for neon-lit phrase in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Wang’s forearms hammered like pistons; with swipes of the right hand she sent top notes flashing off into the roof of the Albert Hall.
Petrenko finished with the Fourth Symphony by the cult Austrian composer Franz Schmidt, who played in the Vienna Court Opera orchestra under Mahler and whose memoirs of that experience detail how utterly horrible it was. Opening with a desolate trumpet solo and spun from recognisably Viennese material — slow marches, unravelled waltzes, curly little scraps of Wagner — the symphony’s melancholia slowly wells up and overflows into a series of progressively more anguished collapses. Petrenko met those moments with a torrential, wrenching intensity of sound.
Mostly, though, he reinforced the impression he gave with his Bavarian orchestra in London earlier this year: of a conductor on an inward journey, making chamber music on a heroic scale. For now, that’s compelling enough, and Petrenko’s quirky choice of programme suggests that he’s assimilated Rattle’s most significant lesson in Berlin —that this orchestra is too good, and tooimportant, to confine to the so-called core German repertoire.