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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 9 in D minor, (1891-1896)
Movts. 1-3 ed. Leopold Nowak
Movt. 4 performing version by Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John A. Phillips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs (1991, rev. 1996)
New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia/Johannes Wildner
Recorded in the Schillertheater, Gelsenkirken, Germany 20-21 April, 12 May 1998. DDD
NAXOS 8.555933-34 [2CDs: 82í43"]

 

Bruckner began work on what was to be his last symphony in 1891 though some of the material was sketched as early as 1887. By the end of 1894 he had completed the first three movements and serious work commenced on the finale in May 1895. Throughout this period his health was increasingly weak and towards the end he began to realize with growing certainty that the physical effort of composing a huge finale would be beyond him. In his last months he advocated that his setting of the Te Deum be employed as the finale but this must have been a counsel of despair for the key of the Te Deum is C major. Both in terms of key and mood that work was a long way from the music he had composed for the symphony up to that point.

At his death a large amount of sketch material was left, some of which was detached (by fair means or foul) from the rest. Over time many of the missing pages of the sketch have come to light and have been reunited with the corpus of the sketch. What has been recorded here is an attempt by a number of Bruckner scholars to make a performing edition of the sketches. I think Iím right in saying that this is not the first such attempt to be recorded. There was a version some years ago for Chandos, conducted by Yoav Talmi but I believe that that recording was not of exactly the same edition as Naxos present here (though Naxos donít present this as a première recording.)

The Ďnewí music, as recorded here, lasts 23í28" and, sensibly, Naxos include it by itself on the second CD. It is about 600 bars long and most of it is by Bruckner Ė the editors have interpolated some bars where there were gaps in the material. The story is told in reasonable enough detail for the general reader in the liner notes accompanying this release. The annotator, Benjamin-Gunnar Coles admits that the material constitutes the movement in a "second-to-last phase of its completion" and argues strongly for the legitimacy of the completion.

The key issue for the listener has to be Ďdoes it work?í My verdict can only be an interim one at this stage, I think. This is because I am so used to hearing the work in its three-movement form that I find it very difficult to adjust to hearing another lengthy movement after the wonderful adagio has died away. I must say, however, that my provisional reaction to date is that I donít feel this completion is successful. Much of the music that we hear does sound authentically Brucknerian in terms of timbre and ambience but even so there are passages that simply jar. Perhaps the most obvious case of this is at 20í14" (Iíve not seen a score of this movement) where a tutti is underpinned by the timpani. However, the timpanist is not playing a roll as is usual in Bruckner, nor even an ostinato on one note, as in the Sixth Symphony. Instead the player is called upon to play what I can only call a tattoo. I canít recall anything like this in Bruckner; it sounds wrong.

Thatís a detail of scoring. More seriously, however, the musical material is episodic and disjointed. I canít get away from the feeling that if Bruckner had felt that he had more time at his disposal he would have re-ordered his material quite significantly and, perhaps would have re-composed much of it. I have found it difficult to discern the shape of this movement. In the wrong interpretative hands a Bruckner movement can sometimes sound episodic but I donít think this is the problem here. The musical material is not organized into a finished article; it doesnít flow logically. Furthermore, the themes donít make a strong impression. In short, the movement doesnít hang together. It sounds crude in parts and it fails to convince me that this is how Bruckner would have been content to sum up what had gone before.

I readily acknowledge that this is a view that I might alter over time with increased familiarity with the movement (though I donít think so). For all the claims made on behalf of this edition this is nowhere near as convincing as the case for the performing version of Mahlerís Tenth Symphony where Deryck Cooke (and others) were able to work from a sketch that had been left fully-composed but not orchestrated. The editors of this Bruckner score seem to have relied, understandably, on Brucknerís compositional habits to argue that what he left was not far from the finished article. They may well be right. However, on this occasion I think one must take into account his increasingly feverish attempts to finish the movement. As I say, with more time for reflection I suspect he might have revised significantly the material he left behind. The jury must still be out but so far I am not convinced.

What of the performance? Well, what are here the middle two movements seem to me to be fairly successful. The scherzo is well done and, in the Adagio, conductor Johannes Wildner adopts a fairly steady and purposeful pulse, something which he does not always achieve in the first movement. The first movement began reasonably well but as it progressed I became concerned by two things. The first, a subjective thing, is what appears to be a matter of fact approach to the music. I didnít feel it was being moulded and shaped sufficiently. One case of this is the passage between letters O and R (14í01" to 15í30") which here almost sounds like a jaunty march. Itís not an easy passage to bring off but Georg Tintner, in a rival Naxos disc seems to me to pace the passage better and therefore to convey its spirit more satisfactorily. Tintner, by the way, uses the Haas edition of the score and itís clear from his strongly worded liner note that the completion of the finale would be anathema to him.

The second concern I have in the first movement is an uncertain approach to tempo. On several occasions Wildner quickens or slows the pace even though there is no marking in the score (I followed a Nowak edition of the score, as used by Wildner.) The tendency to press on, Iíd say, betrays a lack of patience, so crucial in Bruckner. Patience and concentration are the hallmarks of the great Bruckner interpreters such as Haitink, Tintner and Wand. Iím not convinced that Wildner is of their calibre.

It must also be said that the performance could be better. The playing is decent enough but too often it is undermined by the orchestraís seeming inability to play really quietly. For example, in the first movement just before cue J (9í40") Wildner fails to get his players down to a genuine pianissimo. What we hear is more like mp and as a result all sense of mystery is lost. This is not an isolated example. In fairness to the players, this may be partly due to the recorded sound. This is a bit closely balanced, which means that in the huge climaxes thereís insufficient space round the sound and the tuttis become congested and fierce. Also the orchestra seems to lack real depth of tone in the lower strings. This is crucial in Bruckner.

In summary, it would be perverse to recommend this as a performance of the conventional three movement version when there are so many other better versions on the market, not least Naxosís own rival version under Tintner. The completion of the finale is an interesting curiosity but no more than that, Iíd venture to suggest. Consequently, I find it hard to give a strong recommendation to this release, enterprising though it is. However at the Naxos price one can sample without a vast financial outlay.

Let the last word rest with that notable symphonist and Bruckner authority, Robert Simpson. Writing of the Adagio of the Ninth he commented as follows. "So ends Brucknerís uncompleted lifeís work. Though we may regret the absence of the vast background to all this that might have been disclosed by an achieved finale, we may be grateful that this last Adagio, though it is not his most perfect, is his most profound." Like Simpson Iím more than happy to stick with three majestic movements that are indisputably as Bruckner intended them to be.

John Quinn

 



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