FringeReview UK 2019
Michael Schonheidt plays Bach organ works on the Willis Organ, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Andris Nelsons perform Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor.
This is a satisfyingly framed concert. Leipzig Gewandhaus organist Michael Schonheidt plays Bach organ works on the Willis Organ much as Anton Bruckner did here in 1871; and the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Andris Nelsons perform Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor. Its been done before, this organ-and-Bruckner Prom, but its profoundly satisfying here. The more so for being disturbing in the best sense.
The Willis organ is hardly framed for the kind of Bach we hear nowadays, but in a sense we’re hearing it through Bruckner’s sense of scale, the kind of performance style which addressed and prefigured the sonance of his own works. So there’s a kind of flexibility, an uninhibited use of stops and bendy rhythms needed to navigate through the wonderful Willis beast.
Schonheidt started with the monumental Fantasia in G minor BWV 542, a thrilling slightly gothic and very Willis-friendly statement of fluid development and powerfully transformed material. Chorale ‘Jesus bleibet meien Freude’ which utilises from Cantata 147, a declamatory yet consolotory work, where Schonheidt’s directness cuts through considerations of scale or decorations. The Prelude in e flat BWV 552 is another work requiring less of the heft, and well-chosen to provide a tonal reflection of some of Bruckner’s symphonic texture.
The Chorale Prelude BWV 645 but does use a more pastoral set of stops, flutes and other lighter textures. It’s rather remembered for gracing in a certain bank advert. The ‘St Anne’ Fugue in E flat BWV 552 is another work with descanting fugue textures in a celebratory carillon of praise
It’s all thrilling stuff and Schonheidt’s an exemplary period-aware performer, in the late 19th century as well as 18th century sense: not fazed by Victorian gothic, and unabashed by what he finds.
Bruckner’s famed travails with this symphony are only exceeded by multiple versions of his Third and his nearly-finished ninth. Herman Levi seems to have been notably sensitive, not dismissive, about Bruckner’s feelings, pondering with Bruckner’s pupils how on earth to respond to the first version which we can now hear conducted by the late George Tintner on Naxos. Dating from 1887, it’s thrilling but hulking, more shapeless, baffling more than the final version, gaunt and strangely wrong. No-one now will return to it. For once urging revision on Bruckner was the right thing to do. And Bruckner even added harps, which he’d never thought proper to a symphony. It got him out of a block with the Adagio.
Nelsons takes the full 80 minutes, and is compelling with the Leipzigers not just for allowing their brass-rich sound to predominate, but in allowing the orchestra’s various sections to breathe. Thus the Allegro moderato seeks the key of C through quiet intimations stabbed through with brass. And here the brass and percussion scores as it rarely has– does the brass tradition stem by the way from a Russianized East German legacy? Yet the harps too – placed centrally, and the cellos integrated, effective but every individual – sing out and rise above th texture when required. Nelsons doesn’t allow any over-smoothing of what is still a disturbing, disturbed seeker after truth in the first movement.
The Scherzo in its Allegro moderato mode is more conventionally a scherzo, but it’s hardly the bucolic intermission of Bruckner’s earlier work. Here the strings sing with brass interjections and carillons, as well as making way for a sweet-toned Trio section. There’s heft and seamless transition here.
The Adagio’s always a place where you fear Bruckner might hang fire (he makes it ‘slow and solemn but not dragging’), but Nelsons makes a virtue of the sudden pauses and terraces each entry and re-entry. Strings and horns can intimate as well as scurry and stab. There’s a careful blooming of sonority here, aided by a way with the wind section that puts it near the heavenly choirs (wind, not strings, bar the harp seem to perform some of that function).
The Finale’s ‘solemn, not fast’ again poses questions of tempi. Bruckner makes you think it’s going to be conventionally up-beat with a rousing opening but immediately beats it back and we’re in the eddies of recapitulation and recouping. It’s great cathedral-building-in-sound certainly, that go-to description of Bruckner. And like the first movement, three themes are presented, and then battle it out. Nelsons again takes this patiently but the orchestra’s uninhibited brass and other sections happily refuse to beautify this often agonized work, and the final resolution is overwhelming. The demons become part of the ritual.