Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado and Mitsuko Uchida perform Bruckner and Schumann

Helen Wallace on a night of nerve-jangling Bruckner and meaty Schumann at the Royal Festival Hall

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The drama began last night before Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra arrived on stage, when the Southbank’s Head of Music, Marshall Marcus’s pre-concert talk suffered a take-over bid. One minute we were hearing about Bruckner’s particular form of symphonic ‘naievety’ and listening to illuminating recordings by Knappertsbusch, Jochum and Furtwängler, the next Tom Service from The Guardian and Radio 3’s Music Matters had taken the floor and was volubly bemoaning the ‘modern’ approach to Bruckner, which, he contended, wrongly treated the composer as a one-dimensional architect of sound, whose religious belief was enshrined in soporific blocks of ‘spiritual guff’. Abbado was excused; Service predicted an ultra-sophisticated, lyrical take on the work, but urged the audience to return to Fürtwangler’s craggy reading to find the dirt, the savagery and shock in this music.

In the event, this turned out to be one of the most dynamic performances I have heard, fuelled by a nerve-jangling vitality. The opening was taut, muscular, unbending. Service’s contention that there’s no fearlessness in modern-day performances could not have been more boldly met: Abbado does not indulge in subjective meandering, but nor is he brutal. The fugues were commanding, and tempi ratcheted up, particularly in the slow movement, to the point that I missed that oasis of absolute stillness.

At times Abbado seemed driven by an almost impatient intensity of focus and, as the blocks of material hurtled towards us with barely a break, one glimpsed another, demonic version of Bruckner, where the great slabs of harmony – far from building a monumental cathedral – are piled up in an angular cubist heap.

That is not to suggest that Abbado was not absolute master of this performance: he has at his disposal some of the finest players on the planet, ardently responsive to him. The Royal Festival Hall, though improved, fails to offer the afterglow these players must be accustomed to, which made the ineffable radiance of their suspended string chords all the more miraculous, as was every artful detail of solo wind and brass. In the Scherzo’s graceful exchanges, winds picked up the exact timbre of the bell-like pizzicati. Abbado’s precision pacing brought rewards in a glorious final climax, the Lucerne brass creating a blazing depth and texture where other brass sections only shine. The standing ovation was heartfelt and unanimous.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Mitsuko Uchida in the first half was pure chamber music, enhanced by heavenly wooden flute solos of Jacques Zoon and the piercing poetry of oboist Lucas Navarro (principal and ex-principal of the Royal Concertgebouw). Uchida herself seemed determined to eschew a lightweight reading, though her meaty approach was sometimes at the expense of clarity, particularly in the rather smudgy cadenzas and heavy last movement. Still, there were moments of melting pianissimo and who could resist her Schumannesque sense of untrammelled exultation?

 Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

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