Bruckner: Symphony 9 (with Finale)

Bruckner: Symphony 9 (with Finale)
Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic
EMI Classics 9 52969 2 (CD). 2012. Christoph Franke, prod., ed.; René Möller, Tom Russbüldt, engs.; Alexander Feucht, ed. DDD. TT: 82:10
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

This reconstruction of the Ninth's Finale is the result of 30 years' work by Bruckner scholars Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and Giuseppe Mazzuca (SPCM). (See March 2010 feature story.) For this new "Conclusive Revised Edition 2012," SPCM shortened by 18 bars the coda, of which little of Bruckner's writing survives, and reworked it to include, based on Bruckner's description, a development of the trumpets' "Alleluia" in bar five of the Adagio. This works well, though the coda now seems a bit short. A further "final" edition is in the works.

Some critics have felt distanced by this recording's almost superhuman monumentality, but despite the Berlin Philharmonic's immense size and power—the Scherzo is implacably brutal—this Bruckner to me sounds human scaled and deeply personal. This sense of intimacy on so vast a scale, especially in the first and third movements, seems accomplished by giving rising string figures a slight crescendo on the way to the concluding, highest pitch, which is given an extra push of vibrato. The cumulative effect is of an anguished yearning that makes this severely formal music seem, even more, one soul's journey through death and beyond.

Here that soul is clearly the dying Bruckner's; there's never the sense of witnessing a conductor's drama. Speaking of the Finale, Simon Rattle has "absolutely no doubt . . . that Bruckner was going through an existential crisis . . . [and] . . . a compositional crisis." The Finale resolves those crises, but only just. Rattle rises to the challenge of this "astonishingly difficult" music with shapings of answering and supporting figures that make them speak with profound clarity. He falters only in the mounting passage just before the Finale's fugue; the energy flags where it should tumble headlong, as in Wildner's and Eichhorn's recordings.

Even without a Finale, this is a deeply moving Ninth. The thrashing violins twisting around the tragic nobility of the rising brass at the end of the first movement has never sounded more like the anguished dialogue of a conflicted soul. And in the long descent of brass in the "Farewell to Life" (Bruckner's description), near the start of the Adagio, the irresolute three-note string figures have never sounded so heartbreakingly like that soul's failure to console itself even as it accepts the inevitability of death.

The immense interior spaces defined by Bruckner's late symphonies resonate the longer the more the stark logic of their sonic cantilevers is fully exposed, and the Berliners rip the shrouds from Bruckner's often nearly unplayable counterpoint (eg, just before the first movement's coda) as well as I've heard it done, reminding us how precisely such passages must be played if they are not to become grandiloquent mush. The Berlin strings' pronounced sostenuto sometimes coats the sound in a hard glaze that consumes much "air," but not nearly so much as in their and Rattle's recording of Bruckner's Symphony 4 (2007).

Perhaps the engineers have at last learned how to record in the Berlin Philharmonie, a cold and difficult space. This recording was assembled from three concerts and a patch-up session there. I heard one of those concerts, and a fourth in New York, and this disc evinces some fine editing: Except for the spot mentioned above, the hesitancy I heard in those performances of the Finale is gone.

The Finale is the most complex, challenging music Bruckner wrote. This recording is the best argument yet for establishing it in the standard repertoire. Rattle says he will now conduct only four-movement Ninths, and hopes his colleagues will follow suit. Amen.—Richard Lehnert

Axiom05's picture

Wow! This is a great set of articles for anyone interested in the music of Anton Bruckner. Thanks for collecting this all in one place. For those curious about the Rattle recording of the ninth, it is available on Spotify to explore. This is definitely on my To Do list to see if I should purchase the CD.

Ace Mineral's picture

I have the Wand box set Bruckner symphonies.  I also have the above CD.  It stomps the Wand #9 flat. 

Axiom05's picture

Is that the Wand set with the North German Radio Symphony or the Berlin Philharmonic?