Forget Cern. Claudio Abbado has just revealed the secrets of the universe

Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra's astonishing performance of Bruckner exemplifies mathematician Roger Penrose's idea that time goes round in loops

Something weird happened last week at the Royal Festival Hall. At the end of Claudio Abbado's performance of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, what I experienced – along with thousands of others in the hall, and thousands more listening on Radio 3 – felt like a vision of infinity, a collapsing of time and space into a single point of brilliance and intensity. Abbado and his musicians seem to achieve more through the medium of the concert than Cern's Large Hadron Collider has managed in years of experiments.

If there's a creative precedent for this Brucknerian infinity, it's probably the Total Perspective Vortex in Douglas Adams's novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, a device that shows how unimaginably tiny you are in the context of all things in the universe. Well, that's how it seemed to me. And I think I know how Bruckner and Abbado and his musicians did it. But before I tell you, a short scientific digression.

Mere musical descriptions can't really deal with notions of infinity. But I think there's some big science to back up such an interpretation of this Bruckner performance. Well, maybe, if I've understood it right. In his recent book Cycles of Time, mathematician Roger Penrose takes issue with the generally accepted idea that the universe will eventually (in, say, a few trillion years) become an infinitely lifeless, cold soup of pointlessly drifting photons. Penrose thinks we could have a sort of big crunch instead, a universal collapse that would prefigure a new big bang. So the cycle of the universe would begin again: time goes round and round, rather than travelling in a straight line towards an end.

And that's what I reckon was going on at the Royal Festival Hall. Or at least, it's the closest explanation I can find. Abbado gave us a cycle of time, making a piece of music perfectly loop back on itself. At the end of the piece, Bruckner reveals the connections between the tunes you've been hearing for the last 75 minutes. He piles them one on top of the other, in one of the most thrilling musical fusions ever composed. If the performance hasn't done justice to the piece up to this point, the effect of this contrapuntal coming-together is simply noisy. But in Abbado's performance, it was transformative.

The ending, in his hands, gave us the whole journey of the symphony in ultra-compressed form. It was like a black hole of music. Those last five miraculous minutes made sense of everything that had happened up to that point: the discontinuities and disruptions of the first movement, its cubist collection of diverse musical objects, the emotional ambiguity of the slow movement – all of that was resolved, unified and drawn together in this time-travelling coda. You could say the end of the Fifth does in music what Penrose predicts for the universe. It distills the vastness of the symphony into a single passage, its very last chord being the musical equivalent of a big crunch.

How did Abbado do it? Simply by doing what conductors do all the time, albeit more brilliantly than any other musician I've ever heard tackling Bruckner: he controlled the flow of time. It wasn't just him, of course, as his musicians gave a performance that – in terms of ensemble, expression and flexibility – was among the most astonishing any of us are likely to experience. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra raises orchestral playing to a new realm of possibility. Through the alchemy of the musicians' relationship with Abbado, they also revealed Bruckner as a visionary – a quantum, time-collapsing composer.

My cultural life

By my bed: Alex Ferguson's autobiography, Managing My Life, a terrifying reproach to living your life with anything less than iron-like discipline.

On my iPod: Delius's late string concertos, in a brilliant new BBCSO recording.

On my TV: The Rugby World Cup and the great clash of the hemispheres.

In my diary: Wagner's The Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House.

• This article was amended on 27 March 2012. The original sub-heading referred to the Lucerne Festival Chorus, and the text referred to the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra. These have both been corrected.


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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