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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. Symphonic Hall, Musikhuset, Aarhus, Denmark, 2014

My initiation into the music of Bruckner was when the scherzo of the Seventh Symphony was used as the introductory music to a BBC TV adventure series in the late 1960s. It was that work that I heard live at The Proms in 2000. On record my introduction came in the shape of the Fourth Symphony “The Romantic” conducted by Eugen Jochum and the Fifth Symphony from a wartime concert under Furtwängler, both on Deutsche Grammophon.

Bruckner is a composer whose music I initially found easier to respect than to love. I at first felt that his musical ideas were sometimes stretched too far. It is, however, difficult not to feel sorry for a composer who had so much criticism and self-doubt and whose works have been the subject of so many alterations and different editions. Over time exposure to his symphonies has shown a composer of considerable merit and there are now a huge number of recordings available. There are, for example, over one hundred of the Ninth Symphony alone.

The Ninth has, for the most part, been performed as a three movement torso. There have also been suggestions that Bruckner, who was unable to complete the Symphony with the intended fourth movement, would have substituted the Te Deum. There are at least two previous four-movement 'completions'. There's Wildner on Naxos and Rattle on EMI. The latter’s finale is pretty impressive and sounds authentic Bruckner to my ears. It obviously changes the whole structure of a work quite apart from the obvious: increasing its length and not ending with an Adagio. Both Rattle and Wildner use the reconstruction by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca. John Gibbons uses one by Nors S. Josephson. In the liner-notes, composer David Matthews justifies the fourth movement and in doing so dissents from the views of the late Robert Simpson.

There seems to me a lot to say for having a four-movement work in the case of this CD and the other two mentioned above. If you don’t want to hear the Finale you can always switch the CD player off.

The Gibbons/Danacord recording of the 'regular' three movements is impressive in its structure, playing and sound. Compared to Jochum/DG from 1966 the sound is obviously much more lucid although I’d hesitate to suggest that the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra is better than the Berlin Philharmonic. The first movement develops in an organic fashion and - risking a cliché - creates a cathedral of sound. Fortunately we live in a detached house and my wife was out when I played this. The brass is particularly impressive at the end of the movement. Playful strings introduce a formidable Scherzo that has more than a hint of threat and dark undertones; surely Bruckner was aware that this was to be his final symphony? It would be fair here to point out that those detractors who say that Bruckner wrote the same symphony nine times are unjustified: this movement, for example, shows progression from the much-loved Scherzo in the Seventh Symphony. Here again the recording picks up the excellent woodwind who bring a lighter touch between the dark strings and the imperious brass. The Adagio is most impressive throughout its 25 minutes with the themes effectively realized and the playing being of the highest order. Its intensity is tangible and one senses the composer wearing his heart on his sleeve.

The finale (Allegro) seems authentically Brucknerian if sunnier than what has gone before. Naturally it is unfamiliar but it works. It feels cogent and of a piece and is splendidly played. Scholars and Bruckner lovers more knowledgeable than I will have their own views as to whether this is a valid addition or if this four movement completion is anathema. It works convincingly for me.

This reading is a credit to the performers and above all to the sensitivity of conductor John Gibbons. For those who want to hear the Finale in this version this is well worth experiencing. If three movements is your ideal then there is a decent pause to allow you to stop the disc playing. Personally I will play all four when I return to this excellent disc.

David R Dunsmore

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan and John France