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
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
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
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.
Previous review: John
Bruckner symphony 9