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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no. 9 in d
Orchestra Sinfonica dell’Emilia Romagna "Arturo Toscanini"/Vladimir Delman
Recorded live April 1994, location not given
For information visit www.aura-music.com
AURA AUR 425-2 [59’41"]


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I suppose it was in about 1978 that I went along to the Milan Conservatoire to hear a concert by the Radio Orchestra which should have begun with a Shostakovich work (Symphony no. 14, I think) and Harold in Italy. Conductor, a Russian as yet unknown to me, Vladimir Delman.

In the event the Shostakovich was not performed. The Soviet artists’ agency had discovered at the last moment that two of their singers had been booked to perform under a Russian emigré conductor who had renounced his Soviet passport, settled in Italy and, worse still, had Jewish blood in him. Their loyalty to the Communist vision might never have survived the ordeal and they were ordered back home. It was announced from the platform that Maestro Delman felt there was insufficient time to prepare an alternative work and so the first part of the concert, such as it was, consisted of the violist playing a Berio sequenza. After the interval the orchestra assembled and a small, stooping, white-haired man stepped out, batonless, blinked as though the last thing he expected to find was an orchestra, and proceeded to coax from the players a performance of Harold in Italy which, if sometimes slow, was often revelatory in texture and phrasing, with the orchestra playing far above its usual standard.

Vladimir Delman (Leningrad 1923-Milan 1994) had arrived in Italy almost by chance in 1974, following his decision to leave the Soviet Union (the story is told in the booklet). In the following years he acquired a baton, a thick bushy white beard and slightly more girth. He was conductor of the orchestra on this CD from 1986-1988, after which he moved to the Milan RAI Symphony Orchestra, battling manfully against the increasingly philistine attitude of the RAI to music in general. It was such an open secret that the orchestras were to be disbanded, maintaining only that in Turin, that the question was only that of "when", not "whether". Meanwhile the orchestra of Naples went, the choirs of Rome and Milan went and rumours flew. Players who left were not replaced by fixed-contract players, just by temps booked on a concert-by-concert basis. Under the circumstances it is remarkable that Delman managed to obtain some fine performances and even to improve the general level of the orchestra, which finally fell to the hatchet in 1993. And all the time public money was being spent on the restructuring of the Teatro del Verme (in which many years previously Toscanini had conducted the première of Pagliacci but which was by then semi-derelict) as a new home for the RAI orchestra! Delman then set about organising the Milan Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra, in the first place practically a youth orchestra, but died before very much had got done. The Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra has now become, under Chailly, an established part of Milanese musical life, and the rather enigmatic figure who founded it has not been forgotten.

Hardships in the Soviet Union (including a period in a concentration camp) had clearly left their psychological mark on Delman. At times he could behave with an old-world courtliness; but nothing could rid him of the idea that the artists’ room at the Conservatoire was his personal room even when he was not conducting that evening, and "intruders" could provoke frightful storms followed by the lavish application of disinfectant in an attempt to make the room inhabitable once again. He could be unpredictable at rehearsals, of which he demanded a great many, and he looked far older than he really was (almost as old as he does in the grotesque photograph which adorns this CD). His forays into non-Russian operas were controversial and, in the case of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, disastrous, but many Italian critics held him to be the greatest living interpreter of Tchaikovsky, and he was also felt to have a particular insight into a range of romantic works by composers such as Berlioz and Mahler, and among these works was Bruckner’s 9th.

Any assessment of Delman is going to run into an obvious difficulty. How far could we truly assess the art of such pianists as Rubinstein and Horowitz if our only recordings of them were played on poor upright pianos in dry acoustics? Something of their greatness would shine through, but the full range of their abilities would reach us only fitfully. The Emilia Romagna orchestra is not as bad as I feared. The secure and euphonious delivery of the great horn theme near the beginning is reassuring. There are no out-and-out howlers though ensemble sometimes goes awry, as in the stamping passages of the Scherzo (the conductor’s interpretation only comes into focus in the reprise). The strings are sweet-toned but lack power and are swamped by the brass in forte passages (and the engineers have not tried to compensate). Trumpet intonation is suspect at times. The acoustic is not dead, but the reverberation is too short for Bruckner. But, if we want to know how Delman conducted Bruckner 9, this is all we have. A trawl through the RAI archives might locate alternative performances, but the problems would remain. As far as I know Delman never did have the chance to realise his interpretations with a really great orchestra, so we just don’t know what the results might have been.

So what of Delman’s interpretation? Most other performances I have to hand seem to agree on a first movement which comes in at about 24-and-a-half minutes, and this includes a late Giulini and a Celibidache from 1969 (in those years his tempi were still relatively normal). In general, the character of the music does not change a lot between these different performances even if some move a little faster or slower. With Delman the issue is not just that he stretches it out about three minutes more (27’ 21"), it is that the music takes on a quite different character. He uses the extra time to obtain a lot of subtle shading and this is a very resigned Bruckner, left apparently numbed by the powerful climaxes. The second subject material is almost becalmed, and it is here that the differences between Delman and everyone else in my experience are the greatest. It is as though he has never heard the work in other hands and has in all innocence come to the conclusion that the lines to be brought out of the texture as those of principal melodic importance are different ones. There is a fairly general consensus of opinion as to where the melodic lines lie and it is a strange experience to hear a well-known work apparently recomposed. And yet, strictly speaking, nothing in the score actually says that the others are right and Delman wrong, the more so when his actual results are extremely beautiful.

As I suggested above, some ragged ensemble prevents us from appreciating fully the conductor’s stern interpretation of the scherzo until after the rather secretive, will-o’-the-wisp trio. This is, perhaps, his most "normal" movement. At 20’58" the last movement would appear to be faster than many, but Delman’s complete avoidance of gushing romantic expression in favour of much very intimate phrasing actually makes it sound very slow. This is another case where Delman seems to be reconstructing the score in complete ignorance of how it is "usually" done and proceeding, like Walt Whitman’s in his journey to the "unknown region" with "nor map there nor guide", balancing and phrasing so many passages in strange but perhaps wonderful ways so that we feel like strangers in a land we thought we knew. That Delman himself was very much involved in the performance is evident in another way – he was a prince among podium-grunters.

Things might have worked out differently for Delman. While still a Soviet citizen (unfortunately the booklet tells this story without giving the date) he was sent to London to conduct "The Sleeping Beauty". In spite of the number of rehearsals he demanded the orchestra (again, we are not told which) was so impressed that they endeavoured to engage him immediately for more concerts. Great things might have come of it. Alas, the Soviet artists’ agency insisted that the orchestra should engage another conductor from their books (the orchestra ended by engaging neither). Had he lived a little longer, maybe with a sounder orchestral base, he might have become a cult figure. He could become one yet, since the RAI archives include a lot of potential material, including a filmed Tchaikovsky cycle. It remains to be seen how much of this material is compromised, and how seriously, by orchestral and technical standards.

Obviously I’m not recommending this to those who want a basic Bruckner 9. I do think the conductor was an interesting and maybe important figure and I hope my comments will enable you to decide whether you want to investigate or not.

Christopher Howell

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