LPO/ Kurt Masur, Royal Festival Hall, London

Changes are a mixed blessing
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The Independent Culture

Two silences started the London Philharmonic's season. The first, for the benefit of anybody who hadn't noticed the queues demanding to know when Anne-Sophie Mutter would be appearing next, was a lengthy wait for chief executive Serge Dorny to tell the audience that the violinist was unwell, and that they would have to do without the Beethoven concerto. Only after that, out of respect for principal conductor Kurt Masur's other position in charge of the New York Philharmonic, came the currently customary minute in memoriam.

Masur, looking a little weary, moved quickly on to the peaceful beginning of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, the replacement for the concerto. If they were not quite compensation for the lack of Beethoven, the presence of Dame Felicity Lott to sing them was another matter. You may well prefer her in more spirited music, but the performance was one to remember, for all that it was put on at short notice. The vocal lines floated with a calm spaciousness that did not undermine their quiet intensity, as the poetry homed in on thoughts of approaching death.

Music first, ego some way afterwards was the effect, to the extent that Lott seemed visibly moved by the fatalistic orchestral postlude to the cycle, after her own contribution was over. Masur had accompanied with immediate empathy, drawing somewhat subdued but warmly characterised instrumental colours towards moments of great concentration, notably at the end of the second song with its solo horn.

The Third Symphony of Anton Bruckner followed. It's a symphony of numerous revisions. Masur went for the last version, which was the first to have public success and ought to be definitive. Except that nothing is so simple with Bruckner. He was susceptible to influences, and had developed his skills a lot in the meantime. It's hard to be convinced by revisions when they are made 15 years on. People change too much, and Bruckner in particular wasn't the same composer that conceived the work in the first place.

It must have been just too tempting for him to make cuts. Trouble is, once you start... and both the outer movements sounded as if they needed to lose a few more minutes for their proportions to work. Perhaps that was down to the performance. From the start, it gave a Bach-like equal weight to the music's subsidiary parts, rather than building up the symphony from block-like harmonic movements. Even the bold trumpet theme at the start took its place in a mesh of counterpoint, rather than giving a lead.

Certainly, this made the inner lines come across with unusual melodic energy, but it also made it hard to see the wood for the trees. Bruckner's long spans need a sense of grand cumulative tension, whereas instead there was a steady movement from one event to the next. Best were the Adagio, alternating long melodies and quiet formal punctuation like a virginal descendant of Schubert, and the lively Scherzo, with its lilting slow waltz at the centre. The rest, however finely played, made the symphony seem interesting mainly as a context for Bruckner's greater achievements.