Classical: Blazing into colour

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IT'S AN indication of the difference in popularity, still, between Bruckner and Mahler that far fewer people turned up for this performance of Bruckner's seventh symphony than attended the New Queen's Hall Orchestra's recent Mahler sixth. Which is a pity, as the Bruckner provided a very different, but equally fascinating chance to experience the virtues of "period" performance of late Romantic orchestral music. Mahler's dramatically coloured scores present wooden flutes, narrow-bore brass, hide-headed drums etc, in a highly exposed way, whereas with Bruckner the effect was more subtle - like an old, fine-detailed, sepia-tone photograph brought to life. The rich, warm sound of gut strings was evident from the measured opening theme, while the first climax made it clear this was to be an interpretation where intensity rather than sheer brute force held sway. Great resounding chords recalled Bruckner's beloved cathedral organ, and sharp, clear woodwind bit through the surrounding textures to very striking effect.

Here, as elsewhere in the symphony, attacks were not always perfect, and conductor Wyn Morris's elasticity of tempo was slightly disconcerting, if exciting, in the final peroration. But the performance grew in stature as it unfolded - for the glorious adagio in memory of Wagner the bass tuba player crossed the stage to join a quartet of Wagner-tubas (made for Sir Henry Wood in 1892 and played here for the first time since the Twenties) to magnificent effect. The focused tuba sound, together with the long, sweeping melodies, brought this movement to life, and the final climax and coda of infinite regret was mesmerising.

Morris chose a rather deliberate tempo for the scherzo, but what was especially pleasing was the warmth of the nostalgic trio section. The finale - a difficult, episodic movement - got off to a scintillating start, with lucid woodwind standing out again. The added depth and deep resonance of the Wagner-tubas joined with the other brass to enhance the effect of contrasting "choirs", and echoes of the great Johann Sebastian were in the air, as the sepia photograph blazed into colour in the resplendent and noble conclusion of this utterly monumental work.

In Strauss's First Horn Concerto, the soloist Roger Montgomery bravely took on some fiendishly difficult music with a 110-year-old, genuinely French, horn. After a false start and some technical adjustments he responded well to the tuneful material, with a pleasingly lyrical quality in the quieter passages. In comparison to the modern horn the more virtuosic passages seemed to lack power and brilliance, but the experience was thoroughly stimulating and received with warm applause.

Laurence Hughes