Edinburgh Festival '99 Classical: The moral component of conducting Bruckner

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HOW DO conductors communicate with orchestras? A clever psychologist should do some research on this. Some conductors who have clearly been well taught in the conservatoire, give a shapely beat and make all the right movements, get performances that are as dull as death. Other conductors, mysteriously, hardly move at all; yet the orchestras play like angels.

For several years, Gunter Wand has demonstrated at the Edinburgh Festival that he has only to reach the podium and raise his arms for something deeply moving to come from the players. His stiff, jerky movements and magisterial detachment look as though he is isolated in his own world. Yet he succeeds in producing music-making with a unique stamp, his own wonderful kind of deeply-felt seriousness.

This week his NDR Symphony Orchestra played Bruckner's Seventh Symphony with total discipline, musicality and intelligence. But what was more remarkable was that the orchestra's performance reflected a particular timbre, a special conception of phrasing and continuity, and - let's face up to it - a moral quality, a kind of compassionate maturity, a sense of self-sacrifice, a lofty disenchantment with the world's show and cheapness.

Of course, the work, with its famous Adagio, is full of this sort of feeling. But other conductors like to set fire to the brass in the Scherzo, to broaden the melodies of the first movement into gesturing vanities, to lend a caricatured lilt to the finale. Wand - or at least his orchestra - did none of these things. The strings of this orchestra clearly have an intensity and a burnish that would be excellent in Strauss. But you seldom heard it; it gave a rich warmth to the opening of the first movement, a noble cello theme, but otherwise these players had an oddly muffled sound, like whispered confidences.

This was particularly evident in the second subject of the finale, which lurked always on the hither side of Viennese sentiment. The horns, too, glowed and smouldered in the centre of the texture, seldom rising to the surface with any kind of soloistic display.

The Adagio was not, in fact, particularly slow. There was a sense of lament, but it was a lament that had been healed and overcome.

At the best of times, Bruckner's drama is detached, objective, as though expressing the emotion of the rocks and hills. Here, the proclamations of trombones and Wagner tubas were huge and solid, like looming mountainsides. There was no room for tiny human cris du coeur.

The Scherzo was ethereally slow, the constant repetition of its trumpet figure becoming ominous and obsessive, the upward modulations sounding like ceremonious ritual steps up a grand staircase. The trio was even slower, overshadowed by the death-watch of the timpani. There was an immemorial nobility in this performance, like an ancient story with a wise moral. With all its frowning gravity, however, there was also a great gentleness and a warmth of heart. Noisy display would have been out of place.