Proms: Bruckner's soaring soul brought down to earth

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YOU WOULD think the Royal Albert Hall to be as good a place as any in London to hear the monumental symphonics of Bruckner. After all, their leisurely pace and generous pauses (usually abbreviated by conductors) seem to call for a reverberant acoustic.

On Thursday, in the first of their two Proms this season, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Abbado played the gargantuan Fifth Symphony, second only to the Eighth in length, possibly the most strangely exploratory of all Bruckner's symphonies, and certainly the most impressive for its synthesis of themes, including those from earlier movements, in the finale.

The place was packed and at the end the audience roared. As you would expect after all, this was one of the world's super orchestras. Yet even the substantial Berlin strings, who used to make such a beefy sound for Karajan, seemed distant and dwarfed in this ambience, and what was the point of getting 10 double basses to play the pizzicato tread of the symphony's opening - marked pianissimo, not inaudible - as if it were meant as a test for the aurally challenged?

This wasn't a performance with much mystery of a deeper kind. It was efficient and tidy, the superimposed metres (two on three, or four on six) of the Adagio demonstrative rather than expressive, and those drifting, syncopated descents in the violas and violins, breaking up the regular rhythms of the Scherzo, somehow unilluminating. The finale was earthbound, and the sound of the brass towards the end gross. Plenty of noise, little uplift. "I wouldn't go through that again for a thousand guilders," Bruckner is meant to have said when he finished the composition. But, as a listener, you don't expect to sympathise. Still, too much attention can be paid to the composer's obiter dicta.

Take Mozart's dislike of the flute, which he expressed but didn't altogether mean. At least not for more than a minute, and not long enough to stop him writing his exquisitely fluent graceful Concerto for Flute and Harp, for example. This began Thursday's concert as a telling contrast with Bruckner - the number of string-players greatly reduced and the harp amplified for us in the hall. In fact, even timid sounds can travel in surprising ways in the Albert Hall. Is there any way of knowing?

The amplification wasn't obtrusive, it didn't destroy the sense of identifying the player with the sound she made, and Marie-Pierre Langlamet, the harpist of the orchestra, was precisely articulate, even-toned and graceful.

Emmanuel Pahud, the orchestra's co-principal flautist, blossomed too, floating melodies in the first movement like silk streamers and weaving with his partner immaculately in the cadenzas.