Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 9 in D minor (1891-1896)
(Movements 1-3 ed. Leopold Nowak; Movement 4 in performance version by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca (1983-2012, Conclusive revised Edition 2012))
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 7-9 February 2012, Philharmonie Berlin. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 50999 9 52969 2 [82:10]
Article about completion of Bruckner’s Ninth
Bruckner left the score of his Ninth Symphony unfinished at his death. It’s a moot point whether he might have managed to complete the finale had he not spent so much time in his last years making revisions to earlier symphonies. Apparently he suggested that his Te Deum could be performed as a choral finale. Although this has been done occasionally, I believe, there are a number of good reasons not to follow what may have been Bruckner’s counsel of despair; not the least of which is the question of key relationship.
There have been at least two attempts to produce a performing version of the finale from the material that Bruckner left at his death. One is by William Carragan (1984) and is described in the booklet accompanying this CD as “generally more analytically deductive and compositionally liberal (than the version recorded here by Rattle).” I’ve not heard Carragan’s effort; it can be heard on Chandos CHAN8468/9 with the Oslo PO conducted by Yoav Talmi. The performing edition here recorded was begun between 1983 and 1985 by Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca. They eventually joined forces with Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and John A Phillips. These four scholars have engaged in what Sir Simon Rattle aptly calls “forensic musicology.” There has been an earlier recording of their performing version – or, rather, of the version at which they had arrived by 1996, I believe – which I reviewed in February 2004. What we can now hear is described as the “Conclusive revised Edition 2012.”
Before going any further, let’s consider what it is that Samale and his colleagues have produced, since EMI’s booklet helpfully gives quite a bit of detail. Bruckner followed his usual habit of numbering consecutively every bifolio of manuscript paper before beginning to write. That’s clearly a great help to scholars seeking to order the material. The sketches left behind at his death were extensive and were published as long ago as 1934. The finale, as recorded here, consists of 653 bars of music and the material breaks down into three categories. 440 bars consist of “material taken from surviving score bifolios” and this includes the first 216 consecutive bars; the last bar in this category is number 544. We also have a further 117 bars described as “elaboration of original sketches or drafts”. Finally there are 96 bars which are “gaps supplemented by the editors”. So, it would seem there’s quite a lot of authentic Bruckner material here – at least 67% of the score. One other point should be noted, namely that “the instrumentation of woodwind and brass had to be supplemented for around two-thirds of the entire piece.” My take on all this is that there’s inevitably a degree of conjecture involved but my ears tell me it’s been informed conjecture; the result sounds authentically Brucknerian.
Inevitably, there are objections to the process of “completing” Bruckner’s Ninth. Chief among the objections are the following:-
1.The third movement is “a heartrending farewell to this world”. This was the view expressed by the conductor Georg Tintner in his note accompanying his own fine recording of the three-movement score (review). Tintner declared “I for one do not want to hear anything after this most moving of farewells”. I have a great deal of sympathy with this last sentence; indeed, to a large extent I share it. However, I think we must acknowledge that there is an element of anachronism in seeing the third movement as Bruckner’s farewell to the world; he did not intend it as such. He finished the first three movements by November 1894, nearly two years before his death and began work on the last movement by May 1895 at the latest. The fact that he drafted so much of the finale – in fact, he was reportedly working on this movement on the very morning of the day he died – suggests powerfully that, notwithstanding his struggles to finish the movement, he fully intended to compose a four-movement symphony.
2. How can we be sure that the sketches that Bruckner left would have formed the basis of a finished finale? That’s a very valid point, especially with a composer who was such an inveterate reviser. A similar point is advanced by those who are wary of the performing versions of Mahler’s Tenth symphony. They point out that Mahler habitually revised his scores after hearing them in performance but that argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that he never heard his Ninth symphony yet that score is universally accepted. All we can say, I think, is that the work done by Samale and his colleagues represents a “best guess” but a highly educated one
3. The sketches are insufficiently complete to permit a valid reconstruction. That’s an equally valid objection but, as noted above, it appears that some two-thirds of the sketch material is firmly by Bruckner.
Individual listeners will have to make up their own minds on the evidence of their ears: it’s time to consider the present performance.
This isn’t Rattle’s first Bruckner recording. In 2006 he recorded the Fourth Symphony in Berlin (review). There’s also a 1996 recording of the Seventh Symphony with the CBSO (EMI 556425 2 – now deleted, I think) which I have not heard. I said of his Bruckner Fourth that, though it contained a great deal to admire, it struck me as being in the nature of “work in progress”. I am much more impressed with this Ninth. I wonder if it’s the nature of the music that helps. The conductor writes of the Ninth that by the time he composed it Bruckner “was writing transcendent music, in a new voice and a language more revolutionary than he’d ever written before: very dissonant, often very stark and despairing.” It struck me several times listening to Rattle’s account of the great Adagio that there are pre-echoes of Mahler here and Rattle is a very fine exponent of the adagios with which both Mahler’s Ninth and Tenth symphonies conclude. Does he feel a greater affinity with this late, visionary Bruckner, I wonder, than with the Bruckner of the Fourth Symphony?
In the first movement Rattle gives the music the right amount of breadth but he also keeps it moving forward. It helps enormously that he has the peerless Berliner Philharmoniker at his disposal. The majesty of Bruckner’s great climaxes is enhanced by their sumptuous playing: the orchestral sound has wonderful depth and body, as can be heard at the first great tutti statement (track 1, 2:17). However, the power and richness of the sound is only part of the story. There are many quiet passages in this movement – and elsewhere in the symphony – and these are played with consistent refinement. The scherzo juxtaposes delicacy and power in close proximity – with more of the latter. The performance of the scherzo material is trenchant but the light, almost Mendelssohnian trio is done with wonderful finesse.
The Adagio is a conspicuous success. This is Bruckner at his most advanced and searching; the music is often spare in texture and it’s one of the most gaunt symphonic movements I know. Rattle seems to have the full measure of it and, aided by marvellous playing from the Berliners, he leads a commanding reading. The huge main climax (track 3, 20:01 – 20:44) has a bleak majesty yet a few moments later (from 23:18) the concluding pages have a quiet radiance that’s very satisfying.
It’s very strange to follow the Adagio with more music and I’m sure that part of my difficulty with the reconstruction is that I’m simply not used to this. When I reviewed the Naxos recording of the four-movement version I wasn’t at all convinced, finding the finale episodic and the basic thematic material unmemorable. Mind you, I didn’t think that Johannes Wildner’s account of any of the symphony was all that special. It perhaps speaks volumes that I can’t recall listening to that recording much, if at all, in the intervening years. This time I tried a different tack, listening first of all to the finale in isolation before hearing it after the first three movements. Oddly, I was not at all convinced when I heard the movement in isolation yet, somewhat to my surprise, it impressed me more when heard after the preceding three movements. I now think it hangs together rather better, though the seams still show, I believe. That, I’m sure, is due to the fact that we have a better conductor on the podium conducting a better orchestra than was the case with the Naxos release. I remain to be convinced about the structure of the movement; it remains episodic in my view. Also, I still don’t find the thematic material sticks in the mind but that may change with greater familiarity. It still seems odd to end this symphony in an affirmatory blaze. Again, no doubt, this is partly a case of what one is used to hearing but I’m struck by the fact that it appears that the last 109 bars are the most conjectural of all. One point that fascinates me is the brief quotation from the first movement: music that we first heard 2:17 after the symphony began is revisited briefly in the finale (18:58-19:08): was that Bruckner’s idea or an editorial decision, I wonder?
For me, the jury is still out though I think I’ll be much more likely to return to this performance than to the Wildner reading - and to continue listening beyond the end of the Adagio. Certainly, Rattle’s advocacy is persuasive. I’m also conscious of one other thing: we see Mahler’s late music – the Ninth symphony especially - in a completely different light because we’re now able to hear the realisation of his sketches for the Tenth; perhaps the same is true of Bruckner’s Ninth. The work of Nicola Samale and his colleagues will open our ears to a new perspective on the first three movements of Bruckner’s last symphony.
See also review by Ralph Moore (May 2012 Recording of the Month)
A New York performance of the four-movement version by Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker on 24 Feb 2012 was reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Stan Metzger
Rattle’s advocacy for the four-movement completion of Bruckner’s Ninth is persuasive, even if the jury remains out.