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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 9 in D minor (1896)
(i) Feierlich, Misterioso [26:19]
(ii) Scherzo. Bewegt, lebhaft – Trio. Schnell [10:35]
(iii) Adagio. Langsam, feierlich [24:58]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Günter Wand
Rec. live concerts, Philharmonie, Berlin. September 1998
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876 62323-2 [61:52]


Günter Wand made several recordings of Bruckner’s incomplete Ninth symphony, most of them taken live from concerts. There are reviews on MusicWeb of his 1978 studio recording with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, his 1988 rendition from Lübeck cathedral with the NDR Symphony Orchestra and the present recording when it was issued as part of a 90th birthday tribute of his "Essential recordings" (see links to reviews below). I have not heard the earlier versions but it seems fairly clear from the reviews that this version should be the preferred Wand reading, especially as it now appears as a mid-price single disc. In his review John Quinn wrote that "Wand rises to and meets every challenge and, with the outstanding players of the Berlin Philharmonic attentive to every nuance, he lays before us a reading which is compelling, lucid and magnificent".

Overall, I would not dissent from John Quinn’s view on this reading. Certainly the playing is wonderful and Wand’s tempi in the outer movements and his overall control of the structure are very well-judged. I did wonder whether the trio, marked Schnell was taken quite fast enough? There were also a couple of specific points in this interpretation that I found surprising. After a wonderful beginning, Wand seems to virtually ignore the ritenuto marked in bar 61, just two bars before the height of the climax. Although there are quite a lot of tempo changes in Bruckner’s symphonies, relatively rarely does he mark a change of tempo within repetitive passages like this one which build to a climax. Perhaps therefore Wand, and, interestingly, Karajan before him with the Berlin Philharmonic, was questioning whether this was really one of Bruckner’s intentions as opposed to the interventions of those who fiddled with his scores. Musically, however, the ritenuto seems to make sense, particularly when it is perfectly judged by conductors such as Walter and Haitink. This is a fairly small point - I can live with Wand here but not with Jochum in his Dresden recording who plays the ritenuto but precedes it with an accelerando and then inserts a brief unmarked pause before the shattering tutti which follows.

The second surprise is near the beginning of the adagio. This opens with a wild leap on the G strings of the first violins followed by six bars of impassioned music in built-on rising figures with the brass joining in and reaching fortissimo. In bar 7 there is hush and we are left only with two bars of a meandering figure in cellos and basses marked pianissimo. Other instruments then come in, most notably an oboe solo marked piano. For some reason, the dynamics are clearly not right at this point of this recording. The cellos and basses seem to be playing at least mezzo-piano and certainly louder than the oboe which follows. This is a passage that normally one strains to hear and which provides great contrast with what has preceded it but that is diminished here. This could perhaps be put down to the engineers rather than Wand but, whatever the reason, it momentarily alters the complexion of the music and again when the opening is reprised. Overall, I found Wand’s adagio very passionate but there is a wonderful feeling of repose at the very end.

The recording is generally excellent and, although the audience is occasionally audible, it is not really intrusive. Sensibly the applause at the end has been edited out. Whilst this is the most obvious choice for a Wand recording, there is considerable competition from other conductors. Of those I have heard, Bruno Walter in 1959 and Bernard Haitink in 1981 (which does not currently seem to be available) are, in my view, the finest. I was also very impressed with a live Giulini recording from 1996 recently issued on DVD. The present version bears comparison with those although it is not quite as magnificent as Wand’s Berlin recording of Bruckner’s 8th symphony.

When CD was new I recall someone somewhere writing that, never mind the debate about digital sound, the real advantage was that, unlike LPs, CDs could be slipped into the house in a brief case past unsuspecting eyes that would question why another version of Bruckner’s 9th symphony was needed. The comment stuck with me for more than one reason but not least because this is indeed a work for which one version is not enough. Like Wand’s other Berlin Bruckner recordings, this is certainly one of the most essential.

Patrick C Waller


Link to review of Wand’s 1978 recording:

Link to review of Wand’s 1988 recording:
Link to previous review of this recording:

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