Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester brought a peculiar interpretation of Bruckner‘s Eighth Symphony to the Festival this evening, representing less a cathedral of sound (as this work normally is) and more a great expanse of penitents seeking absolution under the open sky. If Sunday’s Beethoven Ninth with Kirill Petrenko and the Berliners was an apotheosis of joy in praise of a benevolent Creator dwelling above the stars to bless humanity, this may have been somewhat the opposite. That’s not a bad thing, just different.
The default volume this evening was, strangely, piano. This is not to say that the orchestra performed the majority, nor even the plurality, at that level, only that it kept returning to this volume for the foundational pulse, with everything else coming as an overlay. And rather than have the orchestra produce a warm and rounded tone, Nelsons had them playing mostly bitter and brash. He also emphasized not Bruckner’s thick harmonies, but rather his newfound dissonance (Bruckner, late in life, did indeed look into the abyss, although this was not the prevalent mood until the Ninth Symphony).
Despite the intentionally-harsh sounds, there was some real delicacy in the playing, consistent with the Gewandhausorchester’s throwback 18th-century traditional tone (the orchestra has its origins from 1743 and has cultivated a distinct style). Bach died in Leipzig in 1750, and although I don’t believe he had an association with this orchestra, tonight’s intricate string work showcased an almost Bachian quality, something Bruckner the church organist and professor of counterpoint would certainly have appreciated and indeed which influenced his work. The woodwinds jumped out where needed (not unnoticed was that at the end of the concert Nelsons gave the first featured bow to the flute section). That said, the brass were less good – not just the rawness Nelsons cultivated across the performance this evening, but actually botching a few notes too many and sounding less sure in ensemble. Great tympanist.