Classical Review: A tale of two Bruckners

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WHATEVER ANYONE felt about Monday night's Vienna Philharmonic concert at the Royal Festival Hall, one thing was for sure: the repertory was enterprising. Seiji Ozawa was on good form for a sprightly reading of Haydn's rarely-heard 39th Symphony, one of the Sturm und Drang set, presented with a substantial complement of strings and a centrally placed harpsichord continuo. The symphony opens with one of those abortive false starts that Haydn is famous for, and the point was well made.

What bothered me most, aside from woodwinds that failed to project across the strings, were some rather affected bulges in the violin line. Ozawa and his players made a dancing statement of the Minuet (the trio was charm itself) and the finale sounded like a fugitive furies' dance from Gluck's Orfeo (which was composed three years earlier).

Bruckner's Second Symphony was both more distinctive and more wayward. The first movement's second idea is given over to the strings and Ozawa brought out all the lustre anyone would want, and more besides. The slow movement features a particularly affectionate passage where violas answer violins, and that too was memorably played.

Certain tempo relations worked better than others, but I craved a greater sense of line, a feeling of stillness and the sort of patient majesty that Haitink achieves with the same composer and orchestra. Ozawa was too busy making points, stressing this or that "beautiful" detail, while leaving the "grand view" more or less to chance (or so it seemed). And, to be honest, Bruckner's Second, with its discursive, topsy-turvy finale, needs all the structural help it can get.

Not, however, the Seventh, which the Philharmonia played on Wednesday night under Kurt Sanderling's insightful direction. Comparing the two orchestras was interesting in that while the Vienna Philharmonic paraded a more refined tonal profile, the Philharmonia's "rougher grain" helped focus the ruddier elements in Bruckner's music.

Again, there were surprises in store, not least a youthfully animated first movement, an Adagio without timpani and, in the finale, an oddly truncated climax just before the second statement of the chorale theme. Sanderling had made a special feature of the same idea's first appearance, centring on it as if everything that had gone before was mere preparation for that one beautiful moment. It was an idiosyncratic performance, but none the worse for that.

Earlier on, Mitsuko Uchida had offered us a robust, classically proportioned account of Chopin's Second Piano Concerto, lyrical in part and more dramatic than most - especially at the declamatory centre of the Larghetto. A little more breathing space wouldn't have gone amiss, but Uchida, like Sanderling (a musical soul-mate), is rarely boring and she offered a forceful slant on a work that, in lesser hands, sounds merely ornamental. Sanderling's accompaniment was tasteful and supportive.