Bruckner at the Proms

Of the three Proms I booked up for this year, I was only able to go to two, the second on Thursday of this week. The main work was Bruckner’s last symphony, only three movements of which were finished before he died (see my posting on 24/10/05). Apparently there were sketches everywhere in his house for the final movement -which was to be his great paean of praise for his ‘dear’ God- and these were mainly stolen by various people before anyone could try and piece them together for at least a performing version of the whole work.

As it is the symphony is over an hour long and full of the astonishing climaxes and moments of still beauty that are so characteristic of his symphonies. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was under its newly appointed Chief Conductor, Jiri Belohlavek on Thursday , and I and my concert companion agreed that it was a powerful and lyrical performance by the ever improving BBC orchestra and its Czech conductor. A critic in The Guardian this morning thought otherwise.

George Hall complains that Belohlavek was unable to ‘realise the composer’s vast structures’ and as a result the work was ‘ a piecemeal affair, it’s local highlights registering impressively but only rarely connecting up into larger spans’. I don’t agree. Surely everyone recognises that it was the composer who had the problem of unified structure, which was one reason why he was always revising his work. The Prom programme note by Stephen Johnson says as much. ‘There are so many themes, so many changes of direction’; that they seem ‘baffling’, he writes. Mr Hall seems to have cracked what many others find hard to solve.

However, the Guardian critic concedes ‘that the orchestra acquitted itself well over more than an hour of intense music-making’. And so it did. The Adagio movement was an astonishing experience, leading to its terrifying dissonant climax, followed by the calm quietness that ends the work so that it felt like a parting benediction by a composer dedicated to his art and to his deep Christian beliefs.

Tonight Simon Rattle is conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. It will be interesting to see what critics make of it, for some of them seem a little unforgiving of Rattle’s flight to Berlin. I shall be watching on TV and will try to avoid the frenetic trivialities of the presenters who, this year have been such a pain (we are even introduced to ‘interesting’ celebrities in the audience during the intervals).