The brass, winds and percussion of the LSO opened the concert with a powerful, dramatic rendition of Purcell’s Music for the funeral of Queen Mary, arranged to sharpen the effect for modern ears by Steven Stucky. It is a piece for public mourning, and the great strokes on the timpani and bass drum bring to mind those fireman’s funeral strokes that introduce the finale of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, but with an added kaleidoscope of colours provided by xylophones, tubular bells and piano. It makes a very effective concert piece, but without a great funeral occasion to mark, the concert hall context displayed a work cut adrift from its function: it was difficult to know where to direct the emotions it evoked.
There’s nothing funereal about the sweet lyricism of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major: melancholy it may be, but its irresistible inventiveness is filled with warmth and vitality. The winds and brass having already displayed their prowess, it was wonderful now to hear the LSO strings introduce Mozart’s melting theme with such delicacy and refinement, its penultimate bar’s little staccato rising scale on violins so lightly and deftly touched-in. It set the bar high for the soloist, but there was never any doubt that Maria João Pires was of a similar mind to Haitink and his orchestra, and the result was concerto playing of the highest standard. Communication between soloist and orchestra seemed complete throughout, but especially moving in the conversation between piano and woodwinds in the slow movement. Pires drew us in closer with her quieter playing as the piano took up the third part of the theme following the woodwinds’ sorrowful comment. The woodwind contribution was very expressive, especially from the flute, which contrasted to poignant effect with the piano’s more withdrawn approach. In the preface to the Bärenreiter ‘Urtext’ score, Hermann Beck writes: ‘The true art in the performance of Mozart concertos lies not in the extreme fortes and pianos which are possible on a modern instrument, but rather in subtle nuances of touch and articulation.’ By that measure ‘the true art’ was executed to perfection in Pires’ restrained but eloquent performance, with its modicum of ornamentation, capped by the many-themed sonata-rondo, full of joy – but with a characteristically Mozartian sense of an underlying sadness.
But there is something funereal involved in Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7. A few months after he had begun work on the symphony in late summer, 1881, there was a disastrous fire at the Ringtheater, Vienna, and 386 people lost their lives. Bruckner, who was at the scene, was very disturbed, writing of the ‘unutterable terror and inexpressible misery of so many people’. Some commentators suggest that the turbulent rhythms and trumpet calls of the Scherzo, which Bruckner wrote first, reflect something of the tragic chaos of this event. Bruckner worked on the Adagio from January to April 1883 – but in the midst of this work he learnt of the death of his musical hero, ‘Master of Masters’ Richard Wagner. The heavy lament on Wagner tubas that follows the climax of the Adagio is a Bruckner’s own funeral music for Wagner, and the LSO brass players performed it to perfection, with the horns applying a marked diminuendo at the close, so that the tubas were audible to the end.
The first movement was as masterly a presentation as one would expect from a conductor as experienced in this music as Bernard Haitink. He avoided the trap of playing the opening far too slowly, and the result was that there was never any need for the grinding changes of gear that afflict other interpretations come the recapitulation. Tempi were flowing throughout, and ritenutos, when applied, were generally subtle enough not to disrupt the coherence of the whole. Within the context of the measured sobriety of this approach, it was marvellous to hear such exuberant and passionate playing by the first violins of the frequent, florid accompanying figures that inspirit the development of the themes. Bruckner marks the coda as ‘Sehr ruhig; nach und nach etwas schneller’ (‘Very calm, but getting faster all the time’), but Haitink kept it slow and magisterial throughout, and it was magnificent.
Any members of the audience who were following the LSO programme note would at this point have expected to hear the Scherzo. Sir Colin Davis, for reasons of his own, reverses the order of the inner movements; although he was not involved in this performance, the programme note for his unique strategy had been redeployed by the LSO (as they had for Daniel Harding’s performance of the Seventh 2 years previously!), even though the symphony was being performed in the usual order, that which Bruckner intended. Presumably readers would soon have realised they had been misinformed because, although not slow, Haitink’s Adagio could not have been mistaken for a Scherzo. But a slower Adagio would have created more of a contrast with the opening movement; maybe Haitink’s capacity to be mournful had been exhausted in Queen Mary’s funeral music that opened the concert – this was not a performance that plumbed the depths of grief. Those gloriously committed LSO violins took up the animated lyricism of the second theme, repeatedly arching heavenwards and down again, and their frenetic scales adorned the ecstatic brilliance of the C major climax (an enormous pair of cymbals created a stronger visual theatrical gesture than travelled to the ear) – once again, the expressive commitment of the orchestral players provided an intriguing contrast with the moderation of Haitink’s overall conception.
The Scherzo and Finale were both models of how to perform this music. Getting the Finale right is especially important, for it needs to present itself as a movement worthy of the trenchant matter that has preceded it in the first and second movements. Wonderful crunchy trombones made for a splendid exposition of the strident third theme, the climax of its recapitulation left in the air for just long enough – no massively extended pause, of the sort that disfigures some performances. The strings and Wagner tubas handled the chorale-like second theme beautifully, and Haitink is one of the few conductors who manages to do a rit. and an accent on the final two beats in way that imparts a full sense of achievement of the summit and a satisfying finality to the movement’s end. This was a classic Haitink interpretation, well served by a magnificent orchestra playing at the top of its form.