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Anton BRUCKNER (1824 – 1896) Symphony No. 9 in D minor WAB 109 [59:01]
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, Germany, 2014 OEHMS CLASSICS OC693 SACD [59:01]
This disc represents the penultimate release in Simone Young's survey of the complete Bruckner Symphonies - only No. 5 waits to be released later this year. It is still relatively unusual for such a survey to include all of Bruckner's symphonies including the so-called Numbers 0 and 00 let alone the various revisions and editions. I have not heard any of the previous releases although they seem to have gained positive reviews.
Some basic house-keeping first; Young performs the 'standard' three movement version of the Ninth with no speculative finale completion. The recording is based on live performances but such is the skill of digital editors now that the presence of an audience is all but impossible to detect. The disc is a 5.0 SA-CD - I was not able to listen to that layer but I have to say the actual sound of the Philharmoniker Hamburg is hugely impressive; very Germanic with rich weight to the lower end of the orchestra, exceptionally well balanced and controlled brass, warm lyrical winds and neat nimble string playing.
Clearly Young is a thoughtful musician and one who has had great success across a range of repertoire including Bruckner. That said, I have to say I have rarely enjoyed a performance of Bruckner 9 less. With such a mighty and complex work there will never be one right or wrong way but Young left me cold to the point of irritation. In essence it seems to me that Young seeks differentiation between sections where other conductors seek unity. In isolation each of these sections are impressive and indeed beautiful - although I am not sure Bruckner 9 should always be beautiful - but I find they do not cohere. Things start well with the sheer quality of recording and playing impressing. The liner-note refers to the opening section as "heroic-monumental" which sums up Young's approach rather well; broad and dignified, weighty and powerful. The blending and control of the brass choir is particularly well handled. In strong contrast is the "Gesangperiode" section that appears at bar 97 (track 1 3:50). For some reason Young micro-manages this song theme so that the last quaver/eighth note of every bar is given a noticeably extended tenuto. For sure it makes a contrast with the implacable flow previously and any musical phrase needs an element of ebb and flow but this is simply fussy. All credit to the Hamburg players who perform it with total conviction but I must admit I have never heard the like before and it does not even begin to work for me. Following a score can be both illuminating and disappointing. There can be times when it becomes clear that performers are taking liberties - for good or ill - with a score but more often than not it can be surprising how much detail is glossed over. For sure Young does not 'gloss' and she does impose her own personality on the work but not always to its benefit. With a score to hand I turned to several other well-known Bruckner conductors. Not one of them from Wand to Karajan, Walter, Jochum (in Dresden or Berlin), Tintner, Rogner, Barenboim or Maazel sectionalises the work as Young does let alone impose such mannered phrasing in this section. The list above covers a wide interpretative range from Walter's marvellously craggy reading to Rogner's fleet unfussy performance with Karajan's powerfully polished version in between. Of them all, it is hard not to hear in Wand's live performance with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in 1993 the most extraordinary binding together of the entire work into a coherent whole. Perhaps I am just too much of an admirer of this organic approach to be able to appreciate Young's opposite conception.
I mentioned the beauty of the sound here - which it most certainly is - but I would argue that both in the second movement scherzo and more critically at the grinding climax of the Adagio this works against the essence of the symphony. Walter in his famous recording with the Columbia Symphony finds a clashing intensity in the brass chords at the opening of the second movement which is quite smoothed away by Young. She seems more concerned with making the string figurations incredibly short - yes there are dots over the notes but no excessive marking. More importantly, why no contrast between ff at figure L [track 2 3:57] and the carefully marked fff twelve bars later? Then - a little bugbear of mine - the written out 4 bars of general pause are cut short before Young launches into the trio. Yes it is marked "schnell" but I do not think I have heard the contrast between this movement's sections so marked. We hear superbly neat and articulate playing from the Hamburg strings but it seems a different piece. Wand is quicker in the opening section and steadier in the trio - he also cuts the general pause - but his recording benefits from greater inner detail with brass counterpoint more clearly defined and the sections flow together. Young, having launched into such a sprightly trio executes a huge - unmarked - rallentando into the secondary theme at letter B (track 2 4:57) to give the strings a near Rachmaninovian gushing intensity. Again in isolation this is impressive playing but not what I understand this music to be. Wand, from his steadier basic pulse, prepares for B by holding his tempo back even a fraction more a full sixteen bars earlier which allows the music to flow into B. The steadier trio tempo suggests to me a simpler, near naive music that in its simplicity provides the greatest possible contrast to the tortured batterings of the main scherzo. Wand - is the master of nuance: details are teased out, tempi are nudged, musical paragraphs flow within movements and across whole works. Young seems to be point-making and telling us that she is point-making in the process.
This recurs in the Adagio. The quality and sustained warmth of the Hamburg orchestra is a joy in itself. My concerns about the homogenising effect of the blended sound recur especially at the famous cathartic climax at bar 206. Robert Simpson in his book "The Essence of Bruckner" (published Victor Gollancz, 1967 rev. 1992) describes it as "... the tearing of a veil ... the opening of the gates of death." That is a certainly a powerfully evocative description - rather more prosaically Bruckner piles a C sharp minor triad against an F sharp diminished with the C naturals giving a "missed octave". Walter - helped to some degree by the lack of technical sophistication of the 1960 recording - has a volcanic, elemental directness that never fails to move me. Likewise Wand produces a climax of near apocalyptic power, the brass slamming against each other in a battle of harmonic wills. Young in comparison is so controlled, so carefully balanced and beautifully executed that the sheer drama of the moment is all but lost. I am not sure I have ever heard the dissonance of this climax sound so euphonious. It's more a twitching of a curtain than the tearing of the veil. The very end of Young's performance is stunningly executed by the Hamburg horn section. Theirs is fantastically assured playing of rock-solid security and the final chord is absolutely nailed in every respect. Again this very assurance seems to work against the aching beauty of the closing pages. Wand finds a fragile humanity and poignancy in these bars that transcends criticism of an unwritten rallentando here, a compressed bar's rest there. Why I am willing to forgive - indeed embrace - Wand's digressions from the score and not Young's I cannot really explain. Perhaps it is simply because I am convinced by Wand's overarching view of the work and not by Young's. Although I have chosen to concentrate on a direct comparison between Young and Wand I have to say I would choose any of the interpretations I mentioned earlier before this new one for all the qualities of the recording and playing displayed here.
The liner from Oehms has quite an extended essay by Michael Lewin in English and German. This essay is slightly curious in that elements of it repeat itself and read as though two separate articles have been brought together without sufficient re-editing. Also, Lewin seems to buy into the idea that Bruckner sanctioned the use of the Te Deum as a substitute finale. In the forward to my Eulenberg edition of the work Hans F. Redlich writes: "There is no shred of truth in the assertion that Bruckner ever wanted the Te Deum to be used to round off the incomplete ninth Symphony." I am not well enough read in the Bruckner literature to know which opinion currently holds strongest sway but my feeling has always been that the Te Deum option seems like a sticking-plaster solution at best. I have found the conjectural completions of the Symphony's finale to be interesting but ultimately sophisticated pastiches - Simpson's phrase not mine - so the presence or not of a finale in a recording will not sway me in its favour. The recent Aarhus performance from John Gibbons (reviewreview) was unremarkable enough in the first three movements to make the value of the completed finale rather too little too late. Certainly Young's performance has a clear conception superbly executed. Others will have to decide if her vision chimes with their own.
Not a version I would ever choose to return to. Nick Barnard