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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 9 in D minor (1896)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. Großer Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, February-March 1990
Directed by Humphrey Burton
Picture format NTSC 4:3, PCM Stereo DD 5.1; DTS 5.1
EUROARTS DVD 2072018 [68:44]

This recording is presumably taken from more than one concert, not that one could easily tell. They were the last that Bernstein gave with the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra with whom he had recorded quite extensively, notably in Brahms and Mozart. Bruckner 9 was certainly home territory for the orchestra but it was the only one of the composer’s works Bernstein had recorded previously – in New York back in 1969. My prior expectation - perhaps biased by Bernstein’s interventionist approach to Mahler - was that conductor and composer were unlikely to be a good combination. Before listening, I browsed the booklet and read David Gutman’s piece which is unusual in providing a critical analysis of the performance at hand. For example, Gutman wrote “Whether you find the results uncomfortable or revelatory …” but left little doubt which camp he was in.
The first thing to say about the performance is that the playing was predictably superb. There seemed to be a very high level of rapport between conductor and orchestra, and Bernstein was clearly inspirational to the orchestra. Wearing heart on face, his total involvement is compelling to watch. The camera spends more time on the conductor than in any other orchestral DVD I have yet seen. There are no histrionics and few idiosyncrasies. Bernstein opts for slowish tempi – these are most obvious in the gesangperiode of the first movement and main body of the scherzo. But the music never drags and concentration is sustained throughout a magnificent rendition of the adagio. Ultimately, I found this both uncomfortable and revelatory – after all, this is not comfortable music. The performance is gripping but not one to experience too often. Just over six months later Bernstein was dead; the cigarettes finally got him. He must have been ill to some degree at the time although you would hardly know it. Tremendous warmth of feeling is evident all round in the applause – it is clear the Viennese and Bernstein loved each other dearly.
There is not a great deal to say about picture and sound quality which are pretty standard for the medium and do not draw attention to themselves. There are no extra features.
In terms of competition on DVD, Giulini’s Stuttgart performance is wonderful (see review) and rather more suitable for everyday listening. Nevertheless, this is a performance that defied my pre-conceptions, and I urge you to see and hear it.
Patrick C Waller





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