Bruckner and Mahler may attract the same kind of crowd, but as characters they have nothing in common. While Mahler was a worldly neurotic with an over-developed messiah-complex, Bruckner was a tormented and obsessive social simpleton. Yet when Mahler’s sixth symphony and Bruckner’s eighth are given a Proms airing just four days apart, comparisons rise unbidden to the mind, and not only because, by a strange coincidence, they both last exactly 85 minutes.
Both works deploy a big, brass-heavy orchestra in the service of a massive overarching vision, and both demand a particular kind of attention to the detail of their gradually unfolding narrative. But the nature of those narratives reflects a fundamental difference. Whereas Mahler’s assumes an extra-musical dimension – whether relating to his personal traumas, or his pseudo-philosophy of life – Bruckner’s musical narrative relates to nothing beyond itself. If there’s something essentially vulgar about Mahler’s emotional exhibitionism, there’s something pure and noble in Bruckner’s self-abnegation. The fact that both symphonies were in the hands of brilliant conductors - Semyon Bychkov for Mahler and Jaap van Zweden for Bruckner – only served to underline the difference in their purpose.
Van Zweden and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic gave Bruckner’s opening movement an aura of mystery, as the two main themes declared themselves before modulating to remote realms. Tightly constructed in a classical manner, the movement gradually moved from darkness to light, while the Scherzo which followed wove a thickening web. If the Adagio attained a beyond-the-grave monumentality through its intricate string textures and chorale-like sub-theme, the oft-repeated descending scale in the finale became a kaleidoscope of textures and colours. Bruckner’s brass is just as busy as Mahler’s, but its moments of cloying Mahlerian fruitiness are short-lived: in Bruckner’s rinsed-clean sound-world, craftsmanship overrides sensuality, as this excellent band showed.
Moreover, this Prom had begun in style with David Fray as soloist in Mozart’s ‘Piano Concerto No 25 in C major’. Singled out at 25 by Pierre Boulez, this young French pianist has as unique a way with Mozart as Maria Joao Pires demonstrated in her Mozart Prom three days before. Mozart once said that the piano part should ‘flow like oil’, and that is what Fray’s did. His cantabile was exquisite, his passage-work had precision and brilliance, and his authority was lightly-worn, with charm.