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Anton BRUCKNER (1824 – 1896) Symphony No. 9 in D minor WAB 109 [59:01]
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. live, October 2014, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, Germany OEHMS CLASSICS OC693 SACD [59:01]
Simone Young’s Bruckner cycle initially evolved quite slowly though the pace of issues has quickened recently as the completion of the series draws nearer: this is the third release in the last eight months or so and I believe that the final release, the Fifth Symphony, is due imminently. I’ve been following the cycle with great interest – I’ve so far bought or reviewed all the releases except symphonies 0, 1 and 3.
This recording, taken from concerts in Hamburg has been reviewed in considerable detail by Nick Barnard and his views have particular value since, unlike me, he was able to follow the performance in a score. I decided that the logical comparison for me to make would be with the recording of the symphony that I reviewed most recently: the 2013 performance by Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which is also a live recording (review).
I noticed one important difference between the two recordings at once. In the opening pages the Hamburg orchestra, and especially the horns, sound rather more ‘present’ than do the Lucerne players. The Oehms recording is a bit more closely balanced – not oppressively so, I hasten to add. With the Hamburg recording you have the sense of being seated in perhaps the tenth row of the stalls; the DG Lucerne recording “seats” the listener a bit further back in the hall. The Oehms sound gives presence and clarity, enabling one to appreciate the quality and sonority of the Hamburg orchestra. With Abbado it’s perhaps a case of distance lending enchantment: the fact that the orchestral sound is not quite so close puts a different ambience around the sound of the orchestra and certainly helps to add a sense of Brucknerian mystery. I should say also that there’s no lack of detail on the DG recording.
In the first movement, before the second group there’s a pause (3:49) but I don’t think that Simone Young makes enough of it whereas Abbado judges the pause much more satisfactorily. I feared this might indicate a trend but elsewhere in the symphony I had the sense that Miss Young judges the general pauses better, for example at 12:14 in the first movement. As the first movement unfolded I noted that there were occasions when Simone Young was inclined to modify the tempo to a greater extent than Abbado. One such instance occurs just before the climax at 14:25 where Young presses ahead urgently into the climax. On one level it’s thrilling but when you turn to Abbado, who reaches the climax at 15:22, you find that his pulse in the lead-up to the climax is rock-steady and that creates a sense of implacability which, I suspect, is more what Bruckner had in mind. Overall, I think Simone Young’s style in this first movement is more direct than Abbado’s. The Italian maestro is a bit more patient in his unfolding of the music; some will prefer that style but others may welcome Simone Young’s more spirited approach. She brings out the grandeur in the final peroration (from 23:35) but still keeps the music moving forward with purpose. Abbado, by contrast (from 24:21) is broader, more majestic and, dare I say, more traditional - and I do not use that last word in a pejorative sense.
Rather to my surprise it’s Simone Young who is the steadier of the two conductors in the scherzo. As a result, when the full orchestra hammers out the unison motif the music sounds heavy, slightly too heavy for my taste. Miss Young’s is a very powerful account. Abbado achieves strength but at a slightly more energetic pace and I prefer his way with the music. Both conductors do the delicate, scampering trio very well and there’s nothing to choose between them.
At the start of the Adagio the Hamburg strings really dig deep; one might almost be listening to the final movement of Mahler’s Ninth. Abbado’s heart is less on his sleeve; in his patrician opening you get a restrained nobility. Though the Philharmoniker Hamburg plays extremely well throughout the symphony it’s perhaps in this Adagio that the superfine quality of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra really tells, especially in their magical quiet playing. In Hamburg the movement unfolds convincingly on its own terms but I don’t think that the performance is as penetrating as it might be. For once the timings give quite an accurate picture: Miss Young tales 22:36 to play this movement against Abbado’s 25:17. Nor is the Italian alone in being expansive. I checked the timings of recordings by Haitink, Jochum (1964, DG), Karajan and Wand (1993, RCA) and found that all of them take in excess of 25 minutes. So too does Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in a set that is also issued by Oehms. I rather think that many Bruckner devotees will prefer a more traditionally spacious view such as is offered by any one of these six conductors. Nor is it just a question of pacing. In Bruckner the ability to negotiate transitions is a key attribute. In the first and third movements of the Ninth Simone Young is pretty good at this: Abbado is masterly.
Let me just mention two points of detail in the Adagio. There’s a passage during which the high woodwind play repeated chords underneath the principal material, which is being discussed by the strings. All of a sudden the strings fall silent but the wind chords continue; one has the sense of the woodwinds being left momentarily high and dry. In the Young performance (at 16:21) the woodwind chords don’t sound stark, as I think they should; in fact the Hamburg players rather peck at them. Abbado reaches the same point at 17:48 and the woodwind chords, as voiced by the Lucerne players, are all more weighted and each chord is meaningful. This may seem like a trivial point but I suggest it shows Abbado’s attention to detail as well as to the big picture. Then there’s the coda. Young’s coda (from 21:22) is well played and well-conceived. However, if you then listen to Abbado’s conclusion from the same point (23:33 in his reading) the difference is significant. For one thing, he prepares the music that leads up to that point superbly and then the coda itself is wonderfully eloquent in his hands, yet never overstated. He finds more in the music and the hushed orchestral playing is ideal.
So where does all this leave Simone Young’s recording? Listening to it straight through and in isolation I think it works pretty well. It’s when comparisons are made that one notices not shortcomings but rather that there is more to this symphony, and especially to its outer movements, than this reading reveals. However, I am not put off by the urgency that she brings to certain passages and she clearly has a view of this symphony, which she communicates. So I would say that anyone who has been following – and admiring – this series, as I have, should hear it. This is not the only way with Bruckner’s Ninth, however, and I would suggest Simone Young’s view of it should be complemented by that of one of the other conductors I have mentioned.
Heard alongside the Abbado recording the Oehms sound is somewhat closer but, as I indicated earlier, the closeness is by no means excessive and the recording, which I auditioned as an SACD, certainly has impact. Furthermore, the engineers allow listeners to appreciate the very fine playing of the Philharmoniker Hamburg. All sections of the orchestra make admirable contributions and the overall sound is well-integrated and balanced and there is a satisfyingly firm bass. As usual the notes are by Michael Lewin. They are detailed and informative though I find them a bit heavy going at times, though that may be partially a question of translation.