Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1887-96) [62:08]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. Netherlands Radio Studio, Hilversum, 2008
EXTON OVCL-00276 [62:08]

An otherwise glorious recording — deep, spacious, and clean, almost tangible in its interplay of timbres and textures — has been sabotaged by peaky, aggressive high trumpet notes and harsh timpani attacks in the loudest tuttis. Those timpani, when they get rolling, also render the textures opaque, sometimes obscuring even the heavy brass. Those edgy, unmusical sounds simply spoil Bruckner's resplendent climaxes. I'd suggest that unfolding the SACD's surround layer would fix this, but I wouldn't count on it: my one SACD experience, long ago, sounded similarly edgy. This wasn't a problem in the early days of stereo; I fail to see why, with all our supposedly more sophisticated technologies, it should have become one.

It's a shame, as Jaap van Zweden provides one of the better Bruckner Ninths I've heard. It is, above all, a flowing performance — a rare thing in Bruckner, particularly in the Ninth, which, unlike the Seventh, isn't really based in its "tunes". The first movement's second theme, for example, goes with real elegance and lift. The first violins maintain a lightness and singing quality over the rests at 13:36, and inflect gracefully even amid increasingly busy surroundings, as in the passage in the finale after 14:20. The music always moves with a sure sense of purpose: in the first movement, note how the gentle woodwind pulsings at 6:29 propel the music disquietingly. The Trio of the Scherzo begins at a bracing, even rollicking pace, relaxing unobtrusively into the more liquid contrasting section.

Although van Zweden plays up the music's melodic, "horizontal" element, he doesn't shortchange its "vertical" element — the weight and thrust of the harmonic progressions. The ferocious outbursts in the outer movements are firmly anchored in the bass; the Scherzo's fearsome, crunching tuttis are as rugged as you could want. The conductor is also sensitive to the score's varying textures: the more lightly scored passages, particularly those involving woodwind chorales, sound airy and "open".
This balancing of flow and weight produces a performance that's powerful and delicate by turns. In the finale, the second theme is an outpouring of clear, open-throated warmth, while the attack at 11:33 is gentle yet forthright. In the more ominous pages — the first movement's third subject, at 7:51, and the quietly marziale passage in the recapitulation at 15:23 — crisp, alert execution over a solid bass foundation heightens the unease. The half-cadences between sections pause with real anticipation. Finally, the prevailing flowing manner throws the most profound episodes into stronger relief: the long valedictory beginning at 16:55 of the finale, in particular, builds in a convincing arc.

The Netherlands Radio Orchestra mostly plays splendidly, attacking the tuttis forthrightly, with compact, full-bodied sonorities; the unison horns are particularly trenchant. The quieter pages, meanwhile, are clean and clear. The violin tone is less weighty than in some orchestras, but it's impassioned and characterful: note, for example, the yearning affirmation with which they launch 15:30 in the finale. There are passing flaws in the outer movements. In the first, the horn at 5:40 seems not to realize it's duetting with the first violins; the oboe pushes its phrases ahead nervously at 9:06, though it's been plausibly buried. In the finale, when van Zweden slows down, unasked, at 7:08, things get sticky; the slow build beginning at 11:46 is careful and a bit tedious. Here and there, a sectional ritard betrays insecurity.

Despite my strictures, this is a fine performance. You might have more tolerance for the harsh moments — and, to be fair, they are just moments — than I; but, for me, they're a deal-breaker. So I'm sticking with Mehta (Decca), Barenboim/Chicago (DG), and Giulini (either the bronzen EMI, from Chicago, or the luminous DG, from Vienna).

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.