At the outset I must declare where I stand on these
Bruckner completions; I’ve yet to be persuaded, even after hearing
Simon Rattle’s much-lauded EMI/Warner recording (review
and Johannes Wildner’s for Naxos (review
In principle I have absolutely no objection to scholarly reconstructions;
indeed, I’ve long since embraced Mahler’s Tenth in all its
manifestations. To my ears at least the latter sound
and it’s no great leap to accept them for what they are –
performing versions created from the composer’s sketches.
Apart from the Adagio
the rest of Mahler’s Tenth was
left incomplete; the difference with Bruckner’s Ninth is that
we have three magnificent – and complete – movements and
substantial pieces of the fourth. Of the 650 bars Bruckner left 600
are either in full score or are clear enough to be filled out with some
confidence. So, an ‘almost is’ rather than a ‘never
was’. For a detailed discussion of the various completions of
Bruckner’s Ninth do read Art
van der Walt’s most interesting article
for MusicWeb International.
I’m assuming the USP of this new Danacord release is the fact
that it includes a fourth movement, in this case one by Nors S. Josephson
(1992). Wildner uses the Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca completion (1991,
revised 1996); Rattle goes one better, drawing on the updated Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca
score (2012). All well and good, but what’s this new Danacord
release like as a performance? The British conductor John Gibbons leads
the Aarhus Symphony in a robust and really rather engaging account of
this great symphony. The first movement is suitably atmospheric –
fine timps and horns – and Gibbons achieves a satisfyingly authentic
Bruckner ‘sound’ in the tuttis.
One aspect of this performance that leaps out is the quality of the
lower strings, especially when they’re asked to play pizzicato
I’d wager that Gibbons worked hard to foster such clean articulation,
and it pays off. Also, his paragraphs are self-contained entities, with
a well-defined beginning and end; some may feel that leads to a slightly
episodic reading, but remarkably it doesn't. Indeed, I soon warmed to
Gibbons’s very straight, clear-cut approach to this score. If
you’re used to the monumental, often aloof Bruckner delivered
by first-tier ensembles Gibbons offers a very embraceable alternative.
Sonically this Danacord release is good rather than excellent; I mentioned
the crisp timps at the start, but they’re rather indistinct in
the tuttis. Still, that’s a minor quibble when the music-making
is as open-hearted as this. Gibbons’s plucky pluckers are just
marvellous in the animated second movement and the music has all the
spring and spontaneity one could wish. Those striding, seven-league-boots
sections are very well managed too. More important, this reading has
a distinct character, and that makes for a most engaging listen.
I’m slightly less convinced by the third movement – I nearly
wrote Finale – which isn’t as penetrating as I’d like.
This is Bruckner at his most innig
, and while Gibbons and his
doughty band capture much of that inwardness the climaxes can seem a
tad rhetorical. Those who despise Bruckner would say they always
sound that way; admittedly, even the work’s legendary interpreters
aren’t blameless in this regard. Caveats aside, I was captivated
by the air of intimacy that Gibbons creates here; these are very personal
utterances after all, so keeping the music on a human scale adds immeasurably
to its emotional impact.
If anything this unmannered performance grows in stature with repeated
listening. Gibbons has a firm grip on the proceedings; his players respond
with real commitment and, where appropriate, with zealous attack. Structurally
Gibbons’s Bruckner Ninth is just fine, and he builds loftily towards
that final genuflection, one of the most soul-baring moments in all
music. What better way for Bruckner to end his last opus than with a
simple supplication to his God? I’ve always been happy to leave
it there, emotionally and intellectually replete, but Bruckner –
not always the best judge of these things – had other ideas.
Of the Wildner and Rattle Finales the latter is by far the most persuasive.
There’s an authentic weight and amplitude here, and there are
no threadbare patches. Also, the peerless playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker
helps to knit it all together. Still, I do find this music rather hectoring
at times, forceful reiterations that add little to what’s gone
before. Gibbons’s Finale, with its faintly risible cuckoo-clockish
introduction, is much less appealing. In general this vesion just doesn't
sufficiently like Bruckner to be convincing. Moreover,
Rattle and Wildner’s Finales are purposeful and full-bodied, whereas
Gibbons strikes me as both cautious and comparatively underpowered.
If you must
have the four-movement version Rattle’s superbly
recorded account is the one to go for. However, if you want a refreshing,
uncomplicated take on the first three movements Gibbons is well worth
your time and money; just make sure you press Stop before the Finale.
A very likeable performance of the first three movements; look elsewhere if you want the full four.
Previous review: John France