It's fairly safe to assume that pretty much everyone reading these programme notes has more than a passing acquaintance with the music of Mozart. I'm fairly sure that the same could not be said for Bruckner, whose 4th symphony takes up the whole of the 2nd half of tonight's concert. The pairing of Mozart in the first half with Bruckner in the second is not by chance. Strange as it may seen, there are a lot of similarities between the two composers.
First and foremost is the transparency that is a feature of both composer's music. Bruckner, for all the big Romantic forces at his disposal, loved the sound of a unisono orchestra - that is, all the instruments playing 'in one voice'. The whole orchestra - brass, woodwinds and strings - all playing as one is a hallmark of Bruckner's music. In actual fact, the orchestra in this symphony is only marginally larger than a Mozart orchestra - 3 trumpets (instead of 2), 4 horns (instead of 2) and 3 trombones and a tuba. Otherwise its double woodwinds and strings for both. The huge sound is created through the use of the unisono and the power of the extra brass - magnificent brass chorales are an integral part of the music and feature prominently in all the movements.
Bruckner (despite being a mid 19th century contemporary of Wagner) is nebertheless essentially a classical composer. Between the big blocks of orchestral sound alluded to above, blocks of delicate counterpoint, full of sensitivity, beauty and warmth present a more intimate view of the symphonic landscape, and here again, transparency of texture is paramount. String textures, woodwind figurations and hushed tremelando strings help create this very alternative ambience.
The difficulty many people have with Bruckner's music is a structural one. Although he sticks with the broad structures of sonata form, scherzo etc. which dominated the classical and romantic periods, within those forms he pretty much abandoned the linear progressions that everyone expected.
Understanding this point is the key that unlocks the Bruckner door.
In a conventional sonata form movement (the structure of 99.9% of 1st movements in a symphony) you first have an exposition - first theme - bridge - second theme - bridge; in this section the composer presents his musical material. This is the linear progression model. The exposition is followed by a development section (during which this material is developed) and the movement concludes with a more-or-less repeat of the exposition called the recapitulation.
Bruckner's model is more like LEGO - you have blocks of material - some big, some small and delicate - and he arranges them and repeats them as if building a large edifice - I often feel that I am walking through a vast cathedral - very sparse and spacious, but full of hidden nooks and crannies that seemingly appear out of nowhere. You stand and look at them, marvelling at the detail and then move on back into the space of the building.
Listening to a Bruckner symphony is akin to a meditation in sound - you don't ever travel far from the source, but the cummulative effect is both powerful and wondrous.