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Edinburgh Festival 2006 (3) : Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiři Bĕlohlávek (conductor) Usher Hall, 01.09.2006.(JPr)

 



Bruckner received more fame in his own lifetime as an organist and teacher rather than as a composer … which isn’t saying that much! He had little interest beyond musical theory and so all his compositions are free of external influences. He remained a bachelor - it is claimed he was probably still a virgin when he died - and had little social life beyond dining with students, although there were a number of sad marriage proposals to very young girls with whom he became infatuated from time to time. Bruckner was formal and serious and it is no surprise his music is often severe with little playfulness and no sensuousness. The composer worked methodically, always finishing one work before starting to compose the next and his scores were neatly written with precise corrections.

‘Authenticity’ remains a vague concept where Bruckner’s output is concerned nevertheless. There are many unanswered questions concerning most of his nine symphonies, since not only did his friends meddle with his scores, but he was often disappointed with final outcomes himself and continuously revised his own work.

His uncompleted Ninth Symphony in D minor suffered such a fate. Though free from any of the composer's own second thoughts, when published after his death it was in an edition by the Bruckner disciple Ferdinand Löwe who managed to ignore much of the composer’s original intentions and toned down the dissonances, inserted transitional modulations and smoothed out the brittle climaxes. Luckily for posterity, Bruckner left his original manuscripts to the Austrian Imperial library and from the second half of the twentieth century through to the present day, most performances have been based on scores restored from this original material: from these new editions Bruckner’s distinctive symphonic voice has emerged more clearly. The facts of the case with the ninth symphony are that Bruckner completed the finale in full score up to the beginning of the coda (a fact pointed out decades ago in Redlich’s seminal work Bruckner and Mahler). The finale of Bruckner’s last symphony was therefore more complete than Mahler’s unfinished Tenth. 

In addition to the personality traits mentioned already, it seems that Bruckner was also obsessed with death and was deeply religious. He kept a diary of his daily devotions, prayed before every performance, and halted his lessons whenever church bells rang. Some have suggested that the extreme length of his symphonies was inspired by the composer’s wish to lull his listeners into a mindset conducive to prayer. As his powers failed during the last years of his life Bruckner dedicated his final symphony to God,  but could not understand how he was  refused the strength and inspiration to finish it.

The work begins with a heartbeat motif, there follows a lulling cradle song and then a descending ostinato develops in the clarinets. Unlike almost all other symphonic composers including Beethoven and Mahler, there is no development section and the original themes are repeated with new colours. The coda begins with one of the many often portentous drumrolls that punctuate the piece.

 

The brutal D flat of the Scherzo is relieved by a ghostly trio. The Adagio allows for conventional religious consolation through its A flat (the key of Parsifal) second subject and the movement then moves relentlessly forwards alluding along the way to music from the composer’s D minor Mass and Eighth and Seventh symphonies.  I am sure I am not alone in feeling a premonition of the composer’s  own death here.  We read of the three sips of tea that Bruckner took before drawing his last breath and I am sure those are in the final bars.

The earliest performances of the Ninth apparently flew by, so I understand, in less that an hour but these days, as in this performance, a few minutes over the hour seems the norm. I wonder if quicker would be better since the music’s occasional repetitiveness and relentless timpani (the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s perspiring principal John Chimes) tends to flatten out Bruckner’s sound world.

The symphony was very well played under the intelligent baton of their new chief conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek, and the orchestra continued to belie its previous reputation for a certain sloppiness. The performance was all thought-through and was therefore thoroughly convincing. Both tempo and phrasing were judged to perfection with the orchestra producing an authentically, if slightly old-fashioned echt-Bruckner sound with solid brass, piquant woodwind and resonant strings most notably at the opening of the Adagio. If had you been in the hall you would have been transfixed as I was at the sight of the timpani being hammered during the first movement) or caressed in the Scherzo while taking up the theme or signalling the poignant conclusion to the Adagio. Whether they should have been quite so prominent I am not so sure as they didn’t seem to  merit a mention in Michael Steinberg’s substantial programme note. On the strength of this performance ‘Bruckner the trumpet’ it isn’t; ‘Bruckner the kettledrum’ it certainly should be!

 

 

Jim Pritchard



Footnote:
This was the last performance of a complete  cycle of all nine Bruckner symphonies performed in the Usher Hall during this year’s Edinburgh Festival with various orchestras and conductors. Recordings of all the performances will begin on Monday 11th September and end with a broadcast of this Ninth Symphony on Wednesday 27th September.

 

 

 


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)