The first half of the concert was a performance of Bach's Cantata No. 82 "Ich habe genug". The stage was set for a small orchestra, but it turned out to be very small, for strings only; other places rising at the back of the stage were clearly just left out for later. Baritone Christian Gerhaher and oboist Bernhard Heinrichs were the soloists in this somewhat mournful work. The music was well performed, but although soloists and small ensembles can work in the Royal Albert Hall, I suspect on this occasion the performance may have struggled to fill the space.
The second half was a complete contrast, the stage being reset during the interval for a much larger orchestra. Bruckner is an odd composer and his Symphony No. 9 is a truly bizarre work, unfinished at his death. Apparently intended as a hymn of praise to God, the composer felt that "He should give Bruckner the time he needed for his task; if he died too soon and his musical offering was left incomplete, God had only himself to blame". Or, possibly, the Dear Lord looked upon the work and thought that the three movements lasting 65 minutes was quite enough. Bruckner certainly wasn't short of ideas, a mixture of stirring string sections and brash brass chorales. It's like a purely orchestral soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings, sweeping over one mountain range after another ... after another ... Of course, this time we must be in Austria rather than New Zealand. But these ideas suffer from a chronic lack of selectivity or editing, and the transition between them, particularly in the first movement, is often chaotic, like a paradigm shifting without a clutch. The dissonance is cognitive rather than harmonic; the work lacks coherent structure. The scherzo is truly demonic, and most of the final movement returns to the relentless behaviour of the first. After a cataclysmic and apparently final chromatic chord, the piece finally gives way to a brief, tranquil coda, which successfully draws a line even if it wasn't the intended finale. I can't deny I enjoyed the performance, while finding the music itself at best interesting but not satisfying; a perplexing reaction indeed.
The musicians were excellent, even if the music was incomprehensible. However, they might learn that (particularly at the Proms) sometimes you need to move the audience along, otherwise they will applaud for ever. Also, "please turn the page quietly" is a direction to the musician as well as the audience. But overall, the orchestra deserves its fine reputation.