Monday, November 29, 2021

St John’s, Smith Square, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra does not do things by halves. I heard it, in 2013, in Mahler’s Seventh, and was impressed by Russell Keable’s clarity of approach, which explained a lot about the work. I had the same response to this top-of-the-range non-professional orchestra in Bruckner’s Fifth, in many ways just as tough a symphonic nut to crack.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, this is the Symphony in which Bruckner unashamedly defers to Beethoven, and as an equal. The quiet opener – of a pizzicato plod down the scale of B-flat, only to trip up at an unexpected E-natural, then back up to the top to try again, and again, laying in a tritone instability that infects home-key certainties like a virus – nods to the C-sharp worm in the bud that strikes a note of uncertainty only seven bars in from the unequivocally E-flat start to the ‘Eroica’. And there is the more overt cap-doffing at the start of Bruckner’s Finale, when he recalls thematic tags from the previous movements, echoing Beethoven at the same point in the ‘Choral’ Symphony. If only Bruckner had had the courage of his convictions and hadn’t spent so much time revising his music – still, he’s kept a lot of musicologists in business and given his audiences reason to ponder his creative process.

One of the aspects of this performance that will stay with me is how Keable and the KSO players joined up the dots between Bruckner’s big tunes and statements, which the Fifth is full of, and his sophisticated and elaborate harmonic canvas, especially in the first movement’s progress through strange dalliances with just-about related, often minor, keys. Keable’s pace steadily underpinned a more fluid tempo, and he shone a light on how the big build-ups only give the illusion of structure but are really part of the bigger picture.

Things were just as convincing in the Adagio, in which, apart from some admirably judged approaches and retreats, Keable made the point that the movement’s goal – that sequential bell-like theme anticipated in the oboe’s melody right at the start (played with melting tenderness by Lindi Renier Todd) – is achieved by a wonderful process of simplification and reduction.

I love the way the Scherzo gets into gear with a speeded-up version of the Adagio’s opening, and there was a robust, almost Rite of Spring boisterousness to the movement, the KSO on the ball with the music’s frequent slips into something more inward and with the strange disintegrations of the dance rhythm, but the passages of delicate counterpoint were not so confident, as they were not in the Finale, where the fugal passages didn’t quite have that vital swagger. Then, from the moment the first movement’s big tune returns, everything rallied and piled into a majestically delivered, surfs-up conclusion.

About a third of the St John’s seating had been removed to accommodate the strings, based on five basses, and they played with generous warmth and fullness. The woodwind occasionally sounded exposed, not helped by the responsive acoustic, the horns had a fine romantic glow, and there was suitably powerful brass for Bruckner’s sonorous chorales. This was my first live Bruckner since the start of Covid, and it was well worth the wait.