It looked like a middle-of-the-road program of Romantic staples. Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony were both written around 1880, though, as with everything, Bruckner took all criticisms to heart and later reworked various aspects of his work without changing its overall shape. These works of similar origin, of course, also contrasted. The Bruch Fantasy was written for a star performer, Pablo Sarasate, and clearly the composer had its potential for audience popularity in mind, whereas Bruckner probably did not write anything outside the intensely personal, internal drive to express his faith. The Fantasy uses popular song and folk melodies as its basis, whereas Bruckner’s music always seems driven by a very personal energy. In any case, these are works that this particular listener has heard many times and represent an approach to music which is not a great personal favourite. I had also prepared, choosing earlier to listen to a performance of the symphony I recalled from a previous tour of Spain by a foreign orchestra some years ago, a tour which included a performance of the symphony in Alicante which I attended. Thus prepared, I applauded the North German Radio (NDR) Elbphilharmonie orchestra onto the stage.
What I had not anticipated was a performance the like of which I have rarely heard. Joshua Bell arrived to play the Bruch Scottish Fantasy. Now reputations can be built on marketing, in which case the performance experience of the ego is often less than the promise. With Joshua Bell, one feels, the opposite is true. He is in such control of the music, so at ease with its expression, that the instrument, the human being, the art and interpretation become a single force. The result would be devalued by the label ‘spellbinding’. It felt at times like an effort to remember to breathe, so completely absorbed were this audience in the performance. It was an experience enhanced by Joshua Bell’s obvious ability and delight in communicating with conductor, fellow musicians and audience to create a sense of inclusion and sharing. An encore seemed inevitable and appeared. It was again a popular choice, but in unfamiliar guise. Thus, O Mi Babbino Caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi became a violin solo with understated orchestral accompaniment.
Thus far not mentioned, the conductor Alan Gilbert then led his NDR Elbphilharmonie orchestra in the Bruckner symphony. Given the orchestra’s previous association with Gunther Wand, this was surely familiar territory for the band, but this familiarity not only bred respect, but immediate and radiant brilliance. Their relationship with their recently adopted chief conductor is clearly not only going to build on the orchestra’s tradition but also enhance it.
There was not a moment in this performance when the playing, the interpretation, the sound, the phrasing, even the complete musical sense fell below the breath-taking, even revelatory. Often, Bruckner’s tremolo strings create the oral equivalent of a painter’s wash, stating nothing in itself, but colouring the overall effect with a dominating presence. In the hands of the NDR and Alan Gilbert, the tremolos clarified by adding what felt like the perspective of another dimension within the image. Through this clarified air, the landscape was able to offer its magical, often guilt-ridden detail.
Long before the end of this performance, it was clear that this was one of the very best interpretations of music I have ever heard. My earlier preparation became irrelevant. Nothing could have prepared a listener for this radiance, this sheer beauty of sound, this perfect balance, this always enlightened phrasing. For the first time in this concert goer’s experience, the music of Anton Bruckner made sense as well as an impression.
Joshua Bell, Alan Gilbert, Max Brooke, Anton Bruckner and the orchestra of North German Radio thus combined to deliver what can only be described as the experience of a lifetime.