I ended last week with Herbert von Karajan. So I thought I’d start with him this week, in
remembering the first time I saw him live: Royal Festival Hall, London – 27 May 1981. The
reason why he has (again) sprung to mind is the single piece on the programme that night:
Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony.
Sitting on the back row of the choir that night, under the Royal Festival Hall’s organ pipes, I
was spellbound, not just by the quality of the playing and the sheer weight of orchestral
sound, but also by the work. It was the first time I had heard any Bruckner live (and
intriguingly my second live Bruckner was the Seventh, with the Vienna Philharmonic under
Eugen Jochum, some nine months later on 8 March 1982), and I was bowled over.
Mind you we had suffered for our art. In those days (before computers, mobiles and online
booking) the Royal Festival Hall opened its booking for concerts exactly one calendar month
before the concert in question. On 27 April sometime before 6am, I joined the queue which
was already amassing alongside the wall of the box office and waited (in relay with three
friends) until the box office opened at 10am. We were lucky – we got the last four seats in
the choir: £3 a ticket, which was nearly twice as much as any London orchestra (for which
the choir was then £1.60). Karajan was at the time 73 and had been with the Berliner
Philharmoniker for 26 years.
Subsequently, on 22 August 1998, I heard Gunter Wand perform it at Edinburgh’s Usher
Hall, its power so great that I was glad not to have booked any other classical concert for a
week (I had missed his previous performance at the 1990 Proms, although – referring to last
week’s blog – have that on DVD). And then there was Bernard Haitink’s Vienna
Philharmonic Royal Festival Hall performance on 5 May 2003 (which started 45 minutes late
because the instruments hadn’t arrived) and three Abbado performances – the Gustav Mahler
Jugendorchester at the Proms on 9 August 1993 (when he had to repeat the end of the final
movement as an encore) and the pair of what turned out to be his valedictory British
performances at the Royal Festival Hall in October 2013, with his Lucerne Festival
All those occasions (and other performances too) will come to mind when I take my choir
seat, this time on the front row, this coming Saturday for Stanislaw Skrowazcewski’s
performance of this craggy work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal
Festival Hall. It was clear back in January when London’s 2015/16 orchestral seasons were
announced, that this was one of the highlights of the year. Skrowaczewski turned 92 on 3
October and – like Karajan, Wand, Haitink and Abbado – is steeped in Bruckner. In recent
years, courtesy of the London Philharmonic, we’ve heard his Bruckner Seventh and Third
(both now available on the orchestra’s own label), and the excitement about this forthcoming
Fifth is palpable. Perhaps not every concert can generate such thrilling expectation, (if they
did I’d be exhausted!) but I am amazed how much a live symphony orchestra can still get my
blood pumping even before it’s happened.
So, that covers the “B” of my “ABC.” “A” was going to be for John Adams, in town this
week to be awarded an honorary degree from the University of London at the Royal
Academy of Music and to conduct the London Symphony twice, but I’ve run out of space.
And “C” was just a tease, though I’m sure I’ll come back to them both.
Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as
a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music
editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years,
and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.