The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's curtain-raiser – Jorg Widmann's Con Brio – felt custom made. New pieces (and this one was commissioned as a season opener for last year) usually benefit from taking account of an orchestra's character and traditions, but this one took great delight in subverting everything that had been so painstakingly cultivated over its 63-year history. Blasts from the past – specifically snatches of Beethoven's Seventh and Eighth Symphonies – morphed into a cartoonish freak show where a lot of hot air was moved about, blown noiselessly into trumpets and horns or overblown through startled woodwinds. A virtuosic timpanist played almost anywhere but on the skins of his instruments. Flashes of Beethovenian consonance kept us grounded, but, as rides go, this one was about five minutes too long.
The Mozart that followed – the Violin Concerto No 3 in G – seemed bent on overcompensating for this unfortunate lapse in decorum. The orchestra's urbanity was pointedly reasserted with playing so elegant and so relaxed as to be virtually horizontal. So, too, the soloist, Arabella Steinbacher, of whom we've been hearing a great deal. Her poised, warmly inflected, off-the-string playing reminded me of a young Arthur Grumiaux. Exchanges with the orchestra's exquisite first oboe were so intimate as to almost exclude an audience. In short, though beautiful, it was all a whisker away from precious. Too discreet, perhaps, for this hall. And in the finale, a more robust approach – not least in the rustic second theme – would have provided some welcome contrast.
For the big work, Jonathan Nott elected to give us the original 1873 version of Bruckner's Third Symphony. Now, I'm one of those philistines who thinks the shorter 1889 version is infinitely more focused and receptive to performance. Nott, on the other hand, far from disguising the amorphousness of the original, seemed intent on flaunting it.
Early tuttis felt strangely indecisive, transitions slow and self-regarding, disproportionate to that which they purported to connect. Despite much handsome playing – a rich and burnished string sound in the slow movement – this performance felt like a series of mirages on a journey to nowhere. Nothing felt inevitable – crucial in Bruckner – and even the final "arrival" was as surprising as it was welcome.