Proms

Messiaen; Bruckner RAH, London / Radio 3
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The Independent Culture
Messiaen and Bruckner made a striking pair in Monday's Prom, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. They're both composers you can't argue with, which explains why Bruckner capitulated so pathetically to criticism, and constantly, futilely, revised his works. Whether or not he thought the drum roll and cymbal crash at the climax of the Seventh Symphony's Adagio were in bad taste - they're considered optional - we got them from Sir Simon, in a performance that was patient, full-throated when required, but not gushing, and which he conducted without a score.

In the Seventh Symphony, Bruckner's heart is more clearly on his sleeve than in almost any of his other symphonies. Whereas Messiaen's Chronochromie, which was played before the interval, aspires to reconstruct natural history in a depersonalised, ritualistic game of numbers and mechanical birdsong. No heart here at all. Dating from 1960, the end of Messiaen's avant-garde period, it's also, despite the title, one of Messiaen's most monochrome pieces, which does not so much draw you in as defy you to enter, and the penultimate section, a tangle of 18 solo strings, is unassimilable after two minutes - roughly half its length.

There was a much more palatable sorbet with Bruckner's Sixth Symphony on Friday, in the form of Haydn's Symphony No 76 in E flat major. None of your E flat heroics here, but a touchingly simple chorale for the winds in the long Adagio and teasing sham uncertainties about tempo in the finale, the sort of work-in-progress humour Beethoven was to exploit much more earnestly. It was impressive that Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducted this little- known symphony from memory, as he did the Bruckner, which is still the least-known of his later symphonies. "Is it always conducted so precisely?" asked my neighbour. To which I don't know the answer, but the music's leanness scarcely permits a sloppy approach. In a way, it's a very modern- sounding score, because every detail contributes to a sharp sense of contour - there's no padding, hidden or otherwise. The music might almost be an aural graph. It also has some very original invention, including a really strange Trio section to the Scherzo that brings to mind nothing comparable. Had Gunter Wand not been too sick to conduct this concert, there would have been even fewer empty seats. As it was, a large audience heard performances that could hardly have been more satisfying.

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