Bruckner moved to Vienna in 1868 to take up the post of Professor of Organ, Harmony and Counterpoint at the Conservatory. Seven years later, in 1875, he was still ruing the day he had left his local city of Linz: only one symphony had been performed, his income was meagre and he envisaged going to debtors’ jail, “where I can descant to my heart’s content on my folly in ever coming to Vienna.” But the day after writing that letter he began his Fifth Symphony, starting with the Adagio and its sorrowful oboe theme. It was hard work: it took him a whole year to compose the intricate finale alone, and he swore he’d never attempt anything like it again, no matter how much he was offered. By 1877 he was going through music again, completing his revision early in 1878, just a few weeks after the catastrophic first performance of his Third Symphony, where most of the audience had streamed out, followed in short order by the orchestra, leaving Bruckner alone on the podium in abject despair. His persistence against all the odds speaks volumes about his inner confidence in the validity of what he was doing.
The only performance he ever heard was played on two pianos – a performance that he had earlier threatened to call the police to stop because the rehearsals had been held without him: in the event he was very grumpy, and had to be persuaded to acknowledge the applause. He might have been even grumpier had he known what havoc his advocates were to wreak upon his score for its first publication in 1896 – large cuts and plenty of re-orchestration – but he went to his grave unaware of this travesty. Still worse things were to happen – the Nazis took a liking to Bruckner’s music and Hitler was particularly fond of the fugal finale of the Fifth, personally choosing it to close the Nuremberg Nazi Party Congress in 1937.
It was a paltry fate for one of the 19th century’s greatest symphonic achievements. How things have changed over the last sixty years, and how extraordinary that in London we have been blessed by two remarkable performances of this symphony, conducted by veteran conductors of impeccable integrity, working with musicians of the highest standards of accomplishment and commitment – Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in October 2011, and now this performance by the Concertgebouw with Bernard Haitink. If vindication were needed for Bruckner’s confidence in his work, it has been amply provided by these two concerts.
Haitink is the embodiment of a tradition of Bruckner conducting that is fiercely true to the cleaned-up scores: there is no funny business. Nor is there any great flexibility with the tempo, no unmarked accelerandos nor exaggerated ritardandos. The markings added to the scores published in Bruckner’s day suggest that this is not how the symphonies were performed then, nor is it how Furtwängler and Barenboim have approached them. Even Abbado was not above interventions to over-highlight the second violins in the Scherzo, or to bring out the flutes towards the end of the finale coda. But from the moment you see the wonderful Concertgebouw take their seats and you realise the orchestra is exactly as Bruckner specified – no extra brass (the so-called “eleven apostles” favoured by Jochum and other conductors), not even a “bumper”, just the four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba – you know this is going to be a performance with no pretensions beyond Bruckner’s own. And when Haitink raises his baton and with absolute security ushers in the disparate elements of the slow introduction, you also know that the symphony is in safe hands: no matter how discursive or episodic it may at times seem to be, the form is absolutely secure and, come the great affirmative ennobling chorale that brings this immense symphony to an end, you are gratefully aware that Haitink, like Bruckner, had this destination in mind throughout.
But Haitink’s approach is not without risk. Sometimes what may be tiredness in him or his musicians can leave you wishing for just a touch more intensity, a little more excitement, but it was not so this afternoon. Maybe once or twice something a little more extreme would not have gone amiss – in that section of the double fugue where the strings are marked ppp, if they had been really, really quiet we would have been even more afraid to breathe, and it would have been marvellous if the timpanist had given slightly firmer double thwacks to restart the fugue after the momentary pauses in the middle – but mostly Haitink’s apparent restraint in the end delivered a far more powerful outcome than many performances that are far more lavish with their expressive gestures and orchestral forces. This is particularly the case in the Adagio, where the broad and increasingly ecstatic second theme often seduces conductors into a degree of excess that unbalances the structure. Haitink allowed a broadening of the tempo, but that was enough, and his musicians did the rest, playing like angels. The Scherzo had plenty of lilt and the feel of a rustic dance, adding an earthy human quality to what otherwise can seem a rather rarefied world that this symphony inhabits. One cannot praise enough the contribution of the brass in the finale – the horns especially – all proving that there’s no need at all for anything more than Bruckner specified. The most memorable things are the great double fugue (sometimes apparently with as many as 14 voices playing at one moment – no wonder it took him a year to write!) and the closing chorale, both of which were superlatively played. But there are also other themes in this movement and I was particularly taken by Haitink’s handling of the “song period” – the second theme group – an urgent, almost jolly violin theme above pizzicato violas and cellos, played quite briskly and taking us to a world that seemed far, far away from stern progress of the fugues and the transcendent glory of the closing chorale to which we would ultimately, and gloriously, return.
The humanity, honesty and sheer beauty of this performance did great credit to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and its 83-year-old Conductor Laureate. It was given in the presence of the orchestra’s patroness, Her Royal Highness Princess Máxima of the Netherlands, who must surely have felt her support to have been fabulously rewarded.
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