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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1887-96, ed. Nowak 1951)
London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 17 and 21 February 2013, Barbican, London
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master
Pdf booklet included
LSO LIVE LSO0746 [67:10]

As compelling as they are I’m not persuaded by the various attempts to ‘complete’ Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Indeed, listening to the off-air recording and 24/48 download of Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne account – his last concert – has left me in no doubt that the three-movement version is ‘complete’ and needs no supplemental fourth. I’ve long admired his earlier Viennese recording (DG), and those of Bruno Walter and the Columbia SO (CBS/Sony), Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Phil (EMI/Warner) and Gunter Wand and the Berliner Philharmoniker (RCA Red Seal); all bring something unique to the table, but the oft self-effacing Bernard Haitink on Philips is not to be overlooked. Now in his eighties this distinguished Brucknerian has produced some truly unforgettable recordings of late; among them are his LSO Live Alpensinfonie and his 2011 Concertgebouw Mahler Ninth, both of which find him in lofty, commanding mien.

Late Mahler and Bruckner symphonies really demand visionary interpreters, so it’s no surprise that conductors who revisit them in their twilight years often have something special to impart to those of us unmoved by the flashy antics of today’s young turks. That said, Simone Young’s Bruckner is an exception; refreshing in its thoughtfulness and sense of purpose this soon-to-be-completed Oehms cycle will be a fine alternative to long-entrenched favourites. The last tranche – Nos. 5, 7 and 9 – will be released in 2015.

Haitink and the LPO have given us decades of top-flight recordings, but those he has undertaken with the LSO are just as rewarding. This live concert, recorded in the acoustically challenged Barbican, certainly starts well. The orchestra are in rapt, highly communicative mode and Haitink builds those Brucknerian layers as only a master can. Celibidache does the same, to great effect, in his Berlin Seventh; despite its astonishing length that’s still my preferred version of No. 7 by far (review).

Haitink's Bruckner Ninth isn’t as lovingly shaped or as spaciously conceived this time around, but his steady, forensic approach offers much in terms of grip, detail and architectural strength. Whether shrouded in mystery – listen to those fabulously atmospheric horns and timps at the start – or blinking in sunny uplands the Dutchman’s opening movement proceeds with an implacable, all-revealing logic that’s very impressive indeed. However, those used to a weightier, fuller sound may feel the LSO Live recording too lean for their liking; the upside is that crucial interjections and colours emerge with startling clarity and a high tingle quotient.

Listening to Abbado’s farewell performance from 2013 is instructive, for despite the felicities on display in London those uncovered in Lucerne are even more wondrous. There’s a pliancy to Abbado’s reading – a profound and intuitive connection - that I’ve not encountered elsewhere. That said, Haitink builds and shapes this great edifice with unerring skill, and even those who grumble about Brucknerian longueurs will have little to complain about here. As for the LSO, all sections excel, the brass and timps especially fine. Now if only the sound had a bit more ballast and some much-needed 'air' I’d be a very happy man indeed.

Still, Haitink manages a formidable trenchancy in the middle movement that fair takes one’s breath away; I find him a little too monumental, though. By contrast Abbado and his Lucerners retain a human scale – a sense of frailty, perhaps – that’s most apt. At least Haitink is more responsive to the movement’s quieter interludes, springing rhythms and liberating textures in the most natural way. He does parenthesise certain phrases, but that isn’t too disfiguring and it doesn’t impede progress. In general I’m normally cowed by the Lucerne orchestra’s sheer power and unanimity of attack, yet in this recording the LSO are as fearless and disciplined as any.

That cragginess returns in the finale, and one simply has to marvel at the great cliffs of sound produced in the claustrophobic confines of the Barbican. Thereafter Haitink is more inward, and he coaxes lovely, hushed playing from his band. There’s no hint of stasis - as there is in his Concertgebouw recording - and the music unwinds like a great gyre, its long thread unbroken. That’s an achievement in itself, yet Abbado and his hand-picked players go one better; they also reveal the symphony's inner workings and celebrate their intricate design in the most artless and affecting fashion.

The somewhat steely, ever-rational Haitink doesn’t try to mimic Abbado’s serene and votive view; then again he may not aspire to such things. In spite of that stoicism – Abbado is calmer, more acquiescent – Haitink finds a nobility and poise in the notes that will unseam even the surliest of temperaments. One distinct advantage of a reading that refuses to yield too soon is that the emotional contrasts are greater than ever; that’s certainly the case here, the symphony’s closing moments consecrated in music - and playing - of soul-battering radiance and repose.

That finale is the closest thing to genuflection in music that I know, and it’s why I can’t conceive of anything that could follow it. Haitink may yield to Abbado in many respects - to be fair, intimations of mortality tend to produce the greatest art – but here and in that Mahler Ninth he is at the peak of his powers. Even without Abbado’s Lucerne concert this would be a transcendent Bruckner Ninth, its insights and wisdom hard won; it's also far more emphatic and purposeful than his comparatively soft-centred and sometimes rambling Concertgebouw version. However, for simple humanity and a remarkable sense of occasion Abbado and his Lucerners are without peer. The latter are very well recorded, too.

A magnificent performance; up there with the very best.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Bruckner symphony 9