London Symphony Orchestra
1 July 2010, Barbican Hall
Renaud Capuçon – violin
Daniel Harding – conductor
Bruch, Violin Concerto No. 1
Bruckner, Symphony No. 7
Dandies and philosophers. I hate the use of the word “warhorse” to describe beloved music that is taxed by being overly familiar. But almost nobody refers to the Bruch violin concerto in any other way. It’s a frayed Victorian valentine, relying on luscious melody, the scent of heliotrope, and moonlight over the Tyrol as its claim to fame. The young French violinist Renaud Capuçon accepted this without a blush or smirk. He was determined to give a reading as gorgeously romantic as taste would allow. His success centered on a honeyed but never syrupy tone. More than that, he knew how to blend into the orchestral strings, which served not to drown him out but to amplify his sound. (Here I think Capuçon was taking advantage of the three years when he served as first among equals as concertmaster of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.)
Currently we have shoals of glittering French pianists, but Capuçon, although still in his early thirties, is the sole French violinist that comes to mind in the front rank. Slender as an elver and almost as limber, he enjoys striking poses. A favourite is to bend so far backward in mid-transport that he could be admiring himself in a mirror on the ceiling. But all dandyism is forgiven—in this setting it was just right. The conductor, Daniel Harding, warmed to the tender mood and led the London Symphony with the same sincere ardour as his soloist.
My highest anticipation was saved for the Bruckner Seventh that followed intermission, but being born in Oxford didn’t seem to serve Harding. He completely ignored the philosophical side of Bruckner, which was a bright idea –the music sat up and moved along smartly in all four movements –but a bad misstep. It was like asking a coronation to be over by lunchtime. I’d call late Beethoven philosophical in the same sense of serious, reflective, and capable of pondering deeply. Bruckner didn’t have the look for it, though, with his weak chin, beady eyes, and sparsely covered pate. Put a greasy apron on him and Bruckner, not Dvořák, could have been the butcher’s son.
But the religious humility in those eyes is unmistakeable, giving the impression that his symphonies should be played reverentially. Giulini was very moving in that vein, but the greatest of all Brucknerians, Wilhelm Furtwängler, took the philosophical road, seeking truth rather than beatification. (Always remembering, lest the argument get too severe, that the first part of philosopher means love.) From his organ playing Bruckner adopted grandeur as a commonplace. He earned his bread by filling immense spaces with sound. The Seventh featured no less than eighteen brass players on stage at the Barbican. From Wagner he learned how to spread chords out across the full panoply of the orchestra – there are moments in the Seventh when we get the rippling waters of the Rhine and its hoard of gold, too.
But Bruckner took something even more precious from Wagner, the ability to construct a chord so that several notes, like tilted finger posts, point down untrustworthy roads. The result is a merging of the elusive and the monumental, like a teasing Sphinx, that is unique to Bruckner’s harmonic path. He seems never to express angst or tragedy, yet quite often he leads us into nervous ambiguity before those triumphant climaxes in the brass that blaze out the tonic. The natural home of brass instruments is the hunt, the battlefield, and Heaven. Although he will occasionally try out a hunting-horn motto, Bruckner’s brasses are celestial, which is why he brings joyful excitement even to beginners in classical music. (The first time you hear the Seventh in full cry is like having a supernova explode in your chest.) As I grow older, though, I find myself more drawn to the winding way of his harmonies, which stretches as far as faith and the diatonic scale can go without breaking.
I’m trying to substitute what Harding left out of his performance. It wasn’t a simple failure – not blunt, abrupt, coarse, or thoughtless. Since his late teens Harding has been a musician of special gifts. On records I’ve never heard a better Turn of the Screw or Billy Budd, not even from Britten himself. There’s a Mahler Tenth to rival his mentor’s, Sir Simon Rattle. Add to this some fairly daring ventures into period performance, and you get the young conductor on the make. In his Bruckner I admired how supple Harding’s transitions were, how controlled the balance between sections of the orchestra, how well managed the relationship of crescendos and climaxes. But when you come to such a pass, the mind is engaged while the heart is staring off into the middle distance. You don’t get to ask a conductor is he actually feels the music he’s conducting, but in this case I was tempted.
The LSO played well but not up to world standard, which they are fully capable of. There was one exception. The brass section was on better than best behaviour. From the trumpets and French horns down to the trombones and Wagner tubas, they drew their power from musical phrasing and nuanced tone rather than raw sound. That’s rare restraint in the tempting playground of Bruckner, where most brass sections swing for the fence, and they deserve a grateful nod. The final chord of the Bruckner Seventh aims to bring the audience to its feet, but here the applause was only moderate. The audience had been considerably more appreciative of the Bruch – a nice example of the wisdom of crowds.