Striking improvement

On Friday night to hear the SSO play the Bruckner 8, conducted not by Donald Runnicles but by his conspicuously unheralded replacement Lothar Koenig.  Julian Rachlin was the soloist in the Berg violin concerto.

As ever, Bruckner brings brass fans out in noticeble numbers.  They are the less-nerdy-looking boys and young men in the audience, as well as at least one other old friend (a French Horn player) whom I always run into when the big B is on the bill.

I’m sorry I didn’t do a bit more preparation (or, I confess shamefacedly, any preparation) for the Berg, which was over before I could really get into it.  So I can’t really comment on Rachlin’s performance, other than to express surprise that he had some music on a music stand, though he didn’t appear to make much reference to it.

The concerto refers to a Bach chorale which emerges (though apparently sublimated in the structure before that) in the last movement with incredible sweetness.  Whenever I encounter such homage I always think of the homage in the film Gremlins, where the gremlins go to the cinema and catch a bit of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: the risk is that the work homaged can sometimes elicit an invidious comparison with the work in which the homage is placed.  If I’d prepared myself more for the Berg this probably would not have been so as the Bach bit just has the unfair advantage of familiarity.  The two came together with a real poignancy at the end and true beauty.  I didn’t want it to stop.

I think I’ve been bowled over more by the Bruckner in the past – and I’ve heard the SSO play it in 1979, 1989 (or circa, which I think was for some reason in the Town Hall) and 2005 when Nézet-Séguin memorably replaced Maazel.  On this occasion it excited more admiration than affection.  Maybe I’m getting too blase.

What really distracted me from any critical evaluation of the performances (even supposing I were a critic) or even the works was the striking improvement in the Concert Hall’s acoustics which is the product of the trials and experiments first noted on this blog in 2008.

That is potentially a bit unfair to the orchestra on this occasion and Herr Koenig in particular (who may, after all, be responsible for some of what I was putting down to the acousticians’ work), because the big lesson from the Berlin Philharmonic’s visit in particular is that the acknowledged deficiencies of clarity in the Concert Hall can be overcome, though perhaps what an orchestra needs in part is an opportunity to hone its skills in a clearer acoustic before venturing into the Concert Hall’s blurr.  That was certainly Edo de Waart’s view when he at least was able to move the SSO out of the bathroomish Eugene Goossens Hall and into the Concert Hall for its rehearsals.

Visually, things still looked a bit makeshift, and I guess there may still be some adjustments to come. At the risk of repeating myself, all I can say is that the improvement so far was more than I had thought possible or likely.  It seems unfair to put it like this, but I really hope it wasn’t just Lothar Koenig’s incredible skill that was responsible for it.  Future concerts will tell.

Anyway, let’s hope that the cargo cult of the sound settles down and I can respond less self-c0nsciously to the improvement in purely musical terms.  In that case I am looking forward to an acoustic dividend with artistic consequences, and especially being able to hear the woodwind, and quieter string details (on Friday some moments of clarity were not entirely flattering), not to mention the horns (on Friday of course we also had some luscious Wagner tubas) and even the other end of the brass placed more precisely on the sound stage.

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