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Big Bruckner Weekend review – there’s no escaping the challenges of his music, as well as its pleasures

<span>Compelling… Alpesh Chauhan conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performing Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony</span><span>Photograph: PR</span>
Compelling… Alpesh Chauhan conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performing Bruckner’s Ninth SymphonyPhotograph: PR

Plenty of classical composers have a reputation these days. Some are good – think of the celebrated jollity of “Papa Haydn” or Beethoven’s tantalisingly struggle-fuelled inspirations. Others are less positive, from Rossini’s image as a workshy tunesmith to Wagner’s as a megalomaniac antisemite. Yet surely no mainstream classical composer is more often dismissed as simply “boring” than Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner.

His symphonies are certainly massive, no matter what you make of the venerable quip that Bruckner recomposed the same one nine times. Of course, one listener’s longueurs are another’s immersive epic – and this devoutly Catholic, counterpoint-obsessed musician also has his superfans. They were out in force for the Big Bruckner Weekend marking the composer’s 200th anniversary at Gateshead’s Glasshouse International Centre for Music – one coachload was rumoured to have come all the way from Dorset. But the five concerts were clearly aimed at agnostics and newcomers as well: broadcaster John Suchet did double-duty throughout as MC and hype-man.

The thing about back-to-back performances of Bruckner’s last three symphonies – plus his “Great” Mass No 3 and his String Quintet – is that there’s no escaping the challenges of his music, as well as its pleasures. I don’t just mean its marathon duration. While these are all pieces from the XXL rail of the classical wardrobe, most of us would sit for longer through films, plays, operas or sports matches. Unlike any of those, though, Bruckner’s works don’t have in-built narratives to carry you along.

Like the joke about Bruckner’s beloved Wagner, alas, there were some beautiful moments in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s opening performance of the Seventh Symphony but some long half-hours. It was clear when the musicians were enjoying the broad sweep of Bruckner’s slow-burn melodies and the trumpets were thrillingly incisive throughout, the tuba a dark shadow across the texture. (The less said about the tuning of the Wagner tubas in this or most other performances this weekend, the better.) That Domingo Hindoyan conducted from memory was a major feat. What was missing, however, was a sense of overall shape and momentum driving through Bruckner’s slabs of thematic material. The finale’s vast orchestral unison landed like a breeze block on a pile of toy bricks: impressive in its way, but dislocated from an already bitty performance.

A rendition of the String Quintet by five musicians from the Royal Northern Sinfonia (playing to a home crowd in the petite, in-the-round space of Sage 2) suffered something similar. Bruckner’s only chamber work is full of finicky motivic small-print and, regardless of periodic tuning issues, there was a serious wood-for-trees problem here. The full-sized RNS was more persuasive in Bruckner’s Mass No 3 – its forces beguilingly intimate, in fact, alongside the combined mega-choir of Durham University Choral Society and the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia. The choral sound was gloriously warm and finely balanced with the RNS by conductor Thomas Zehetmair to create textures of gleaming lucidity. Among the soloists, Elizabeth Watts and Hanna Hipp stood out – Hipp’s fantastically dark timbre the ideal foil for the bright edges of Watts’s soprano.

Only hours later, the 1,640-seater Sage 1 was packed for what turned out to be a Bruckner masterclass: the Eighth Symphony from the Hallé under outgoing music director Mark Elder. “We were a bit worried the piece might be too butch for the hall”, Elder told Suchet afterwards, “but it wasn’t.” No indeed. From the absolute precision of the horn’s first note to the terrifying timpani strokes of the finale, Elder’s ear for detail was matched by the hall’s bright, crystalline acoustic. Barely shifting on the podium, the conductor moved musically from 0 to 60 with the flick of a baton; the string syncopations in the Adagio became a kind of tectonic shifting under the surface; the climaxes were catastrophic.

That, I assumed, would be peak Bruckner for the weekend. But Sunday afternoon saw Alpesh Chauhan and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra serve up a Ninth Symphony every bit as compelling. A charismatic, balletic conductor, Chauhan jabbed and scooped at the air in front of him; passages that could have been yet more repetition were held in absolute tension with a poised little finger. Most remarkable, however, was the journey from laid-back sonic beauty in the first movement via an extravagantly off-kilter push and pull in the scherzo to a phenomenally intense third movement, by turns majestic and breathtakingly gentle. As a Bruckner first-timer marvelled to me at the end, “What’s not to love?”