Dresden Staatskapelle, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

A performance as lustrous as that of the Dresden Staats-kapelle under Bernard Haitink makes you reflect on the whole phenomenon of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony.

A performance as lustrous as that of the Dresden Staats-kapelle under Bernard Haitink makes you reflect on the whole phenomenon of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. It was the first of the composer's symphonies to be widely noticed, and, in a sense, it contains his essence. Haitink goes for vast grandeur, steady tempos, massive sonorities. His gestures are roomy, generous, and the performers live and work within this spacious world.

Somehow, the majestic trombones of this orchestra typified Bruckner's spirit. Berlioz said that the trombone was "calm and imposing, with a religious accent". This is, perhaps, the best description of Bruckner's music. If Mahler is a trumpet and Strauss a horn, Bruckner is unquestionably a trombone, a solemn, grave and festive voice. But there is also something impersonal about it. While Strauss presses on us the emotions of a young man, Bruckner's emotion is detached, heavenly - or even sphinx-like - rather than personal. He presents us with a lyric idea, full of tenderness, but then he changes key, and his changes of key seem to lack meaning. He is monumental in the truest sense, beyond any ordinary human history.

This performance was deliberate, deeply considered. Every phrase had its beginning and its ending, even when the sections of the orchestra were answering each other in succession, a favourite Bruckner habit. The conductor did not obviously control the cessations and hurryings, but they happened anyway, with absolute unanimity, sometimes almost imperceptibly. Indeed, these players know each other so well that they can delay their entries slightly, as though they had all the time in the world.

The adagio of this symphony was, in effect, Bruckner's requiem for Wagner, and it begins with a chorus of Wagner tubas. They sound utterly different in Bruckner's hands from Wagner's. They grumble and growl, darkly obsessed with low chordings, heralds of something far below Valhalla. The long violin cantilenas had a huge dynamic range, rising from a muffled whisper to intense vibrancy.

In the scherzo, there was a distinctive trumpet, broad-toned and reminiscent of a bugle or flugelhorn. The lumbering tempo destroyed any feeling of trivial gaiety. Bruckner has no gaiety. In the last movement, the coy second theme was answered by a stony unison of the whole band, chilling but magnificent.

There was also Weber's Oberon overture and Mozart's 34th Symphony. A reduction of string numbers in the Mozart did not bring about any real loss of splendour. With such richness of sound and magisterial control, this orchestra lacks only spontaneity, lightness of touch. They never seem to have any fun. Fortunately, there's no fun in Bruckner.

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