Austrian Connections – Leicester Concert-goer Review

Austrian Connections
Bardi Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Claus Efland
Bardi Wind Soloists

Mozart – Sinfonia Concertante for winds
Bruckner – Symphony No.4 in Eb “Romantic”

De Montfort Hall, Leicester
Sunday 6th October 3.30pm

One of the incidental pleasures of attending Bardi concerts is that this listener at least becomes re- acquainted with music that he cherished both live and on record in his youth, but which seems to have almost disappeared from concert programmes more recently. Not long ago there was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

Then one of my first LPS in the early 1950’s was of Karajan and the Philharmonia performing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik coupled with Sinfonia Concertante for Winds K297b, the latter performed by the wind stars of the orchestra of that time, Walton, Sutcliffe, James and last and certainly not least Dennis Brain. I was told by some scholars that the work was of doubtful origin but I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. Music of such wit, elegance, and effortless beauty has always seemed to me quite clearly to have the imprint of the master.

This performance brought that all back to me. It is true that there was a rather reticent start. The orchestra was a mite stiff in its phrasing and the soloists struggled to emerge. It all sounded more like a symphony than a concerto and one wondered whether the body of strings was slightly too large. Perhaps it is the scoring or perhaps it was that all concerned took time to ease themselves into the work but by the wonderful slow movement things took off. The quartet emerged as players of personality and this was Mozart at his divine best as was the case in the virtuosity demanded of the players in the variations of the third movement.

These demands were fully met so that my memories of the 1950’s became even more hazy than they were in the first instance and it was an outright pleasure to hear how Linda Backhouse, Oboe, Andrew Piper, Clarinet ,Mark Penny, Horn and Ceri Beaumont, Bassoon relished the virtuosic opportunities given them. And then from gambolling in the sunny landscape of this work, the players were faced with ascending the Everest that is Bruckner’s huge Symphony No.4 (Romantic). To be frank, one seriously worried for the safety of the climbers. The idea that a largely amateur group of limited symphonic size could do justice to this composer where sometimes even crack professional orchestras fail seemed optimistic in the extreme.

Such feelings were not without foundation. Firstly, in certain aspects, size does matter in Bruckner. All the stuff about ‘cathedrals of sound’ has some truth and that is achieved by building upwards and ,however manfully the double basses sawed away, four of them to my ear simply could not provide that foundation.

Also, and not surprisingly, the strings as a whole were communicating signs of metal fatigue by the time they reached the final movement, which in any case, as quite often is the case with this composer, is not a fully satisfying crowning of what has gone before.

However, as so often is the case, what might be regarded as an impediment to enjoyment was not so. The smaller size of the ensemble emphasised that Bruckner at least knows that he is not writing for organ but for an orchestra with its wider range of colours. The conductor brought out at times, particularly in the cellos and the woodwind, the Schubertian elements in the symphony which so often disappear in the welter of ear bursting sound. Mind you there was plenty of that since the brass were in fine form starting from the first horn, who was only just off soloist duty in the Mozart and was then faced with his own Everest at the opening of the symphony, so important in the setting of the mood of the work. It was a test in which he triumphed.

But then there were many felicities in this performance, not least the clear intention of Claus Efland to keep things moving. One the best performances of this symphony I have heard came in this year’s Proms from the Philharmonia under its chief conductor Salonen (who incidentally comes to Leicester this season) and it was so because some of speeds would have shocked the purists who believe that Bruckner is one comatose meditation and the slower he is played the deeper is the interpretation. Both these conductors showed just what is missed in the music when played like that. The scoring is infinitely more various and more lively than it often seems in the way it is performed and this was communicated powerfully on this occasion.

So, in the end, though unsurprisingly not quite as successful as the orchestra’s performances of Strauss and Nielsen, it seemed a journey well worth the taking, particularly since there seems a severe shortage of Bruckner in the Midlands.