MUSIC / Lest we forget: Anthony Payne stands back in awe as the BBC SO scales new symphonic heights at the Proms; Stephen Johnson shivers in an Ealing garden and counts sheep on the South Bank

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The Independent Culture
IN A WEEK that focused on a grand triumvirate of late-Romantic symphonists we heard Elgar's Second and Bruckner's First, before progressing to Mahler's Fifth and finally Bruckner's Eighth. It was the Mahler that brought the LSO's outstanding concert under Michael Tilson Thomas to a blazing close on Friday evening, and that, after they had provided the most poetically sensitive and dramatic accompaniment for Anne-Sophie Mutter in Berg's Violin Concerto.

The exposed, soloistic writing for orchestra which gives this work its many moments of intimacy and agonised inwardness drew superbly responsive playing, and the colloquies that developed between Mutter and the orchestra's soloists helped to build a gripping narrative. Even when the complexity of Berg's argument evolved into dramatic climax, the fastidiousness of the orchestral playing yielded textures of the utmost clarity.

Over and above all, however, was Mutter's exquisite characterisation of her role. There was a speaking quality to the emotion she evoked as she ranged between extremes of expression, pitting the tenderest lyricism against a searing delivery of the anguished recitative in the concerto's famous death scene. And when Bach's chorale Es ist genug emerged to initiate the work's final prayerful gestures there could have been few in the audience whose hearts were not stilled.

How different is the effect of a chorale in Mahler's Fifth, where it similarly focuses the composer's long-range thinking. Providing a brief intimation of ultimate triumph amidst the strife-torn second movement, Mahler's chorale is resurrected and extended some 40 minutes later in the jubilant finale to produce a tremendous resolution of the symphony's tensions.

The instrumental virtuosity and sheer physical energy required to carry through this vast expressive plan were supplied in full measure by Tilson Thomas and his orchestra. Brass playing of unquenchable fire and sonority, wind playing to match, and a string section that never flagged in dynamism and attack while bringing an autumnal poignancy to the famous 'Adagietto' - all contributed to a masterful interpretation.

It was going to take something very special to conclude this symphonic sequence, but that is exactly what we experienced on Saturday when the BBC Symphony Orchestra under an inspired Gunter Wand gave an interpretation of Bruckner's Eighth that few will forget.

As Robert Simpson says in his great book on the composer, we need patience to understand Bruckner, an appreciation of those stretches of musical inactivity which are the equivalent of the great spaces enclosed by a cathedral's columns. Then come the mighty outbursts which are the more awe-inspiring for being perfectly placed in this vast tonal context. It sometimes seems as if only a conductor of the greatest experience can command the spiritual calm to bring Bruckner's cosmic inspiration to life, never fussing with the huge progressions, allowing the music to take its long breaths.

Wand achieved all of this, and the orchestra gave of themselves heroically. The inevitability of the Brucknerian pace, the sheer intensity of the mountainous climaxes and the calmness of the air that surrounds them could rarely have been more inspirationally realised. Not for the first time in the week, we left the auditorium locking a performance into our memories - a measuring stick for future interpretations.

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