Monday 26 August 2019

Prom 47: A splendid Bruckner Eighth from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under music director Andris Nelsons

Prom 47: Bruckner Symphony no. 8 - Andris Nelsons (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 47: Bruckner Symphony no. 8 - Andris Nelsons (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Bach organ works, Bruckner Symphony No. 8; Michael Schönheit, org: Andres Nelsons, cond: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 23 August 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Andris Nelsons, conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra as Gewandhauskapellmeister at the BBC Proms for the first time, takes a spacious view of Bruckner's magnificent edifice at the BBC Proms

Prom 47 - Michael Schönheit (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 47 - Michael Schönheit (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
J. S. Bach and Leipzig enjoy a clear link, given Bach’s association with that city’s Thomaskirche; the Leipzig Gewandhaus certainly made the connection, inviting their organist, Michael Schönheit, to give a mini-Bach recital prefacing Bruckner’s great edifice, his Eighth Symphony. Of course, Bruckner was himself an organist, and was at the Walcker organ of the Gewandhaus the day before the premiere of his Seventh Symphony; he also gave recitals on the Albert Hall organ. The connections seem to be endless.

For Prom 47 on Friday 23 August 2019 at the Royal Albert Hall, Michael Schönheit played Bach's Fantasia in G minor, BWV 542, the chorale from Cantata No. 147 'Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben', BWV 147, Prelude in E flat major, BWV 552, Chorale Prelude 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme', BWV 645 and Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552, before Andris Nelsons conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 8.

Earlier in August (Prom 21), Olivier Latry had given a organ recital of huge power. Michael Schönheit’s approach was more restrained, but no less emotionally powerful for it. The works heard here have Leipzig connections (the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 was played by Mendelssohn, Gewandhauskapellmeister at the time, on his visits to Britain, for example). Here, the G minor Fantasia, BWV 542 (from the Fantasia and Fugue of that catalogue number) was noble rather than overwhelming. Interesting that the Prelude and Fugue of BWV 552 (the “Saint Anne”) were separated by the BWV 645 Chorale Prelude on “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (“Sleepers Wake”). It was in the Prelude of BWV 552 that Schönheit was at his most jubilant, the Fugue spacious and appropriately cumulative. If the Schmidt-Mannhem transcription of the Chorale “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desir’ing”) from Bach’s Cantata, BWV 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” sounded rather unaccountably laboured, this remained impressively intelligent, musical playing.

Bruckner’s Eighth, an 80-minute edifice heard here in the 1889-90 Novak edition (with its quieter ending for the first movement). Nelsons refers in conversation as Bruckner’s music as “part of the DNA of the orchestra”; indeed, the orchestra was the first to perform all nine of Bruckner’s symphonies in a single season, that season being 1919-20, when the conductor was Arthur Nikisch. Nelsons’ view in 2019 is spacious – daringly so. Yet he has the confidence to make it work, allowing the modernity of some of Bruckner’s writing to shine through – that wonderfully vulnerable, keening oboe of the opening minutes (Domenico Orlando), for example. The richness of the Leipzig strings is well-known, but how impressive they can be in those notorious violin tremolandi, given at times in a dynamic marking which must have been around pppp, yet projecting right around the hall. Antiphonal violins, and a plethora of double-basses behind (seemingly reaching into) the first violins underlined the richness of the Leipzigers’ sound. Some superb clarinet work confirmed the excellence of the woodwind; and how the brass crowned the climaxes, ringing out resplendently. Nelsons’ way with the structure, too, was impressive, the music’s trajectory ever clear but with so much detail shining through.

The Scherzo seemed perfectly paced. Brass were exceptional, as was Nelsons’ balancing of the orchestra at high dynamic levels. Timpani expertly undercut the music (the superb Marek Stefula), while Nelsons honoured the Trio’s fairytale evocation, enabled via the addition of two harps. Those harps also make their point in the Adagio, a movement where Nelsons’ sense of breadth (and of management of sound within space) paid huge dividends. Nelsons seemed to ask for total immersion of players and audience (only partially succeeding in the latter). Wagnerian signposts in the music seemed clear, as did Bruckner’s penchant for beauty – there was some positively radiant playing. The finale again found Nelsons willing to dare, allowing the music space to glow, and to grow organically. Nelsons’ conducting is full of large-sweep gestures, and of crouchings, but it is all for a point, and the orchestra realises that. This was a splendid Bruckner Eighth – even if the climaxes of the last movement left space for just a touch of interpretative growth, perhaps (a move from the highly impressive to the truly overwhelming).

Prom 47: Bruckner Symphony no. 8 - Andris Nelsons, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 47: Bruckner Symphony no. 8 - Andris Nelsons, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
(Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
The orchestra seems to revel in Nelsons’ direction – just as sterling of execution as under Chailly, but more human against Chailly’s more deconstructivist approach. Nelsons, one of the World’s most in-demand conductors, is still new at the Gewandhaus – he was appointed to his post in February 2018 – but there is no doubt he has already made his mark. The future, in Leipzig, is bright.
Reviewed by Colin Clarke

The concert is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

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