Listening to Bruckner's symphonies can be very frustrating.
Even the popular ‘Romantic’ Symphony No. 4, whose programmatic elements Bruckner identified in its 1878 revision, has little sense of growth, development or joined-up musical discourse.
For any conductor and orchestra, it’s an interpretative minefield, which Michael Seal and the ever-resourceful Birmingham Philharmonic avoided by focusing instead on individual nuts and bolts – a splendidly articulate opening horn from Tim Stidwill, super violas in the Andante, impeccably voiced wind and brass contributions throughout – and screwing up the tension whenever possible.
Even more to his credit Seal made no attempt to tone down Bruckner’s empty rhetoric, allowing the trumpeting bombast to blaze forth without restraint, and dowsing his meandering asides in as much cloying sentiment as they would take.
When it was over (who but Bruckner – and Mahler – could write such interminable scherzos that go on long after their initial ideas have run their course?) many no doubt experienced a feeling of resolution after such an interminable journey; for me it was one of welcome relief.
How different to Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which is a model of concision (there’s not even an extended cadenza) and possesses a melodic grace that never outstays its welcome.
The soloist here was Byron Parish, mild of manner yet always alive to the work’s distinctive lyricism and, where necessary (notably in the outer movements), capable of generating a sparkling head of steam without overplaying the gymnastics. And, for once, we heard a genuinely unforced Adagio, sweetly modest in scale while also suggesting an underlying joy.