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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1896 version, with reconstructed Finale by Nors S. Josephson, 1992)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/John Gibbons
rec. 2014, Musikhuset, Aarhus, Denmark

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 convincing, 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 sound 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.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: John France