Sunday 3 March 2024

BPO/Thielemann - Bruckner, 29 February 2024


Symphony no.00 in F minor, ‘Study Symphony’
Symphony no.0 in D minor

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

Images: Frederike van der Straeten

Bruckner years seem to come around considerably more frequently than most others. Presumably they do not; indeed they cannot. The sense probably reflects instead the eagerness of orchestras, conductors, and orchestral managements to make the most of any such anniversary. This concert had the merit of performing two works we have less opportunity to hear, what have come to be eccentrically numbered as 00 and 0, in performances from Christian Thielemann, conducting from memory, and the Berlin Philharmonic. I was grateful for the opportunity, though I cannot say they are symphonies to which I shall return in a hurry, not when there is so much neglected Haydn and even Mozart. 

The 1863 ’Study’ Symphony in F minor has had ‘00’ attached on account of its preceding the work known as ‘0’. Written at the end of Bruckner’s studies with Otto Kitzler, it is not unpleasant, but it is difficult to imagine anyone would bother with it if it were the work of someone else. For one thing, like the ‘Nullte’, it seems to last considerably longer than it does. I was convinced, until I looked at my watch, that the programme’s estimated timings had been exceeded. The first movement opened promisingly, sounding surprisingly close to Mendelssohn at times, without ever sounding quite ‘like’ him. Thielemann and the Berliners offered a fine match of (relative) lightness and polish, without sacrifice to heft or underlying harmony. I was put in mind of Thielemann’s way with Elektra, which confounds expectations at many a turn. A charming cello solo in the development section came as a pleasant surprise, and it was a relief to discover, a few awkward corners notwithstanding, that there were none of the blind alleys down which the traditionally numbered early symphonies have a habit of proceeding. The coda at last gave a hint, it not more, of the apocalyptic Bruckner, three trombones and all. 

Schumann was more in evidence in the second movement, ‘Andante molto’, though again without edging too close to resemblance. The lack of memorable material was a problem for me, likewise anything approaching the essential simplicity that is the key to so many slow movements, but those who simply like the ‘sound’ will have enjoyed themselves. Thielemann certainly had it flow nicely, permitting plenty of space for detail. Another lovely solo, this time for oboe (Albrecht Meyer) offered contrast. The more turbulent passages received outstanding playing that never fell into exaggeration. Slightly stronger pre-echoes of mature Bruckner characterised the scherzo, albeit with stronger flavours not only of Mendelssohn but also Schubert. The finale struck me as, by some distance, the weakest. ‘Influences’, particularly those of Schubert and Schumann, were stronger; so was a tendency towards aimless meandering. It is doubtless not without interest for those especially interested in Bruckner; that is the best I can say.    

The D minor symphony of 1869, the so-called ‘Nullte’, is not in any meaningful sense ‘no.0’. It was written between the First and Second Symphonies, but when, in the 1890s, Bruckner reviewed it for publication, he decided against inclusion, nullifying it both with the word ‘annulirt’ on the title page and by amending the number 2 to the sign ‘∅’, erroneously taken thereafter as ‘0’. It certainly sounds, if patchily so, more like the Bruckner we know. The ominous quality of onward tread at the opening to the first movement offered quite a jolt, as did Bruckner’s harmonic language. There was greater consistency of voice and general direction: far from complete, but getting there. It was a thrill, moreover, to hear the tremendous Berlin sound. As time went on, though, the musical argument – or lack of one – simply bewildered me.

The second movement is not without fussiness, even in so accomplished a performance as this, but what we heard was a committed and, at times, involving missive from a world not so distant from Lohengrin. I know Brucknerians resist – with good historical reason – the idea that the composer might benefit from active editorial intervention; perhaps we do simply have to take this as it is. I wonder, though, whether there is room for something to be done to have Bruckner say what needs to be said more directly. The scherzo came across as a much more coherent whole. (Yes, that may well be more readily accomplished for a scherzo.) It also, doubtless not coincidentally, sounded closer to the mature voice of the composer. A Janus-faced trio, ‘new’ harmonies set against a backward glance to an imagined eighteenth century, worked similarly well. The fourth movement offered an inventive, if not always successful, attempt to address the ‘finale problem’ after Beethoven. There is much, perhaps too much, going on, which does not always feel properly connected, although Thielemann’s performance gave connection its best shot. The music stopped and started, as surely it must, but we had an enjoyable and, at times, exciting ride in between. Now may we have some Haydn?