Schubert & Bruckner, NDR Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg, Gunther Wand, 24 August
Gunther Wand, 90 next year, must now be the most venerated conductor to stand on the rostrum of the Albert Hall. He emerged from the wings, to open his concert with Schubertís Unfinished, gently, and slowly guided by the arm. He moved onto the podium. The audience clearly adore him as they welcomed him with a tumultuous roar few conductors are lucky enough to receive at the close of a Prom, let alone before a second of music has been played. At the close of Brucknerís Ninth symphony the cheers and applause threatened to shatter the walls. Within minutes the entire Albert Hall, packed to the rafters, was on its feet. He returned three times. Extraordinary scenes that must almost be unique.
He chose to conduct the two greatest unfinished masterpieces of Nineteenth Century symphonic music Ė yet the performances were utterly complete, utterly compelling and of a time and a moment that we could almost think to be extinct. The pacing was perfect in both works and the magnificent NDR Symphony Orchestra offered playing that was fabulously assured in technique. In the concert hall I donít think I have ever heard better horn playing in a performance of the Ninth symphony than we heard here Ė the very opening bars had all eight horns playing as a single unified whole with every player breathing simultaneously, giving precise dynamic weight to the notes. Throughout the entire work their playing was faultless with even the most exposed writing played to perfection. Woodwind were equally spellbinding (particularly a lamenting solo oboe) and the strings (notably astonishing basses and cellos) were silken in tone and capable of extraordinary purity in the upper register (even if the first violins at bars 73-4 seemed overwhelmed by the fff of brass and woodwind). Whilst the Albert Hallís notorious acoustics were partly to blame for this I wasnít quite so sure about the strident trumpets. Here the sense of balance seemed wrong. Yet, these were small blemishes in a performance that seemed telescopically drawn, almost as if Wand was building the bridge from the first movementís development through to the coda of the third movement. Its span was undeniably impressive, at tempos which seemed ideal. Particularly memorable was the Sehr langsam section of the adagio (fig. M) through to bar 203 (end of fig. Q). The gravity and weight of the climax, its collapse and the resurrection of the coda were as complete as in any performance I can recall.
The Schubert had uncommon weight yet was similarly imposing. It was utterly memorable Ė a starter to a concert that will long be remembered by those who were there. This was great music making.
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