Simon Rattle, Carnegie Hall, 2/24/12

I waited a long time for this performance: the first on US soil of Bruckner's Symphony 9 with any edition of the completion of the Finale by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and Giuseppe Mazzuca (SPCM), and the first anywhere of a four-movement 9th by a first-rank conductor and orchestra, in this case Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. I sat in seat K-16, on the right side of the Parquet (orchestra or floor section) of Carnegie Hall, and so was even more grateful that Rattle had split the Berlin's first and second violin sections into antiphonal choirs, left and right. It beautifully clarified Bruckner's even-handed writing for the two sections. I don't think I have ever heard an orchestra of such finesse wedded to such power. The sheer volume of sound in the hall was almost overwhelming.

Rattle clearly deeply feels the power of this work, and was able to convey that to us through the orchestra—I don't think I've ever seen so clear an example of a conductor holding or reserving, for a hundred or so musicians, a common space into or through which could be collected or focused what must have been their many different feelings and thoughts about this music. The ongoing, everyday miracle of the modern symphony orchestra—so many playing not only coherently, but with great delicacy, as one—was once again made manifest.

That said, I found the performance itself a strangely mixed bag. In the first and third movements, Rattle's considerable range of dynamics was movingly effective, and I think his Scherzo may be the best I've heard—overpowering and hellish, and never lacking in precision. If Scherzo this was, it was one of absolute dead seriousness. Throughout the symphony, in fact, the Berliners' precision and control and power seemed almost superhuman. I agree with Bruckner Journal editor Ken Ward, however; as he pointed out in his excellent review on Bachtrack, the orchestra's relentless sostenuto playing does somewhat mask the inner voices and some of the subtler counterpoint. Perhaps it's a holdover from or an institutional memory of the Karajan decades . . .

It was the performance of the Finale itself that I found least satisfying. It seemed episodic and tentative, with awkward transitions, adding up to something less than the sum of its parts. This was not a weakness of the uncompleted Finale itself, or of the movement as completed by SPCM—I find the recordings of various editions of the SPCM completion conducted by Friedemann Layer, Kurt Eichhorn, Johannes Wildner, Daniel Harding, and Marcus Bosch to hang together more seamlessly and committedly, and to make more internal sense, than did either of the Rattle/Berlin performances I heard (at Carnegie on February 24, and the live webcast from the Berlin Philharmonie of February 9, the latter archived here and viewable for €9.90). But, as Rattle himself said in his video introduction to the live webcast on the BPO's website, there is no performance tradition for the Finale—the movement was entirely new to the orchestra, which had only a few rehearsals of it before the concert. It will be interesting to hear what EMI's engineers and editors assemble for the CD edition, to be released May 22 (Wagner's birthday), from the three Berlin performances and a patch session.

But while I expected more from such a fine conductor and orchestra, I was happy to hear them performing this music at all. And this newest, 2011 edition of the SPCM Finale, with newly condensed coda, really does work beautifully. The realization of the completers that Bruckner's remark about concluding the symphony with a quotation of the "Alleluia" from "the second movement" is likely to have indicated not the eventual second movement, the Scherzo (as long assumed, though that never quite made sense), but the rising figure on trumpets beginning in bar 5 of the Adagio (which may well still have been the second movement when Bruckner made the remark), must have been one of those forehead-slapping moments: Of course! I think it works wonderfully.

A special treat for me was a long lunch with John A. Phillips, one of the four members of the SPCM team. I felt fortunate to be able to hear his stories of the various stages of the completion, and of the discovery of just how much of the Finale Bruckner had completed, and how many of those pages had survived, and how many sketches applied to the missing coda, from the man who, as much as anyone, has discovered those many connections.—Richard Lehnert

Share | |

Enter your username.
Enter the password that accompanies your username.