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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1893) [61:26]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. live, 7 August 2014, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

This recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was admired by John Quinn more as in the ranks of ‘satisfying’ recordings in comparison with his consideration of Abbado’s Deutsche Grammophon recording as being in the ‘elite’ category (review). I’ll get into a few alternatives later, but with Abbado’s last version of this work awarded the Gramophone ‘Record of the Year’ in 2015 this may well be a generally acknowledged leader of the pack.

After a summer during which I was unable to access my post, the massed wobbly heaps of CDs demanding attention when the doors were flung open at the end of August meant that this recording was, ironically, given greater attention than I would normally have time for with any single release. I’ve been playing it on and off and following the score for weeks on journeys of one kind or another, and have come to appreciate its fine qualities with warm affection. Sonically this is a delightful listen with plenty of gloss and richness to the orchestral textures, not too much detail but nothing significant lost. Christoph von Dohnányi’s performance doesn’t have the intensity of the best of the alternative catalogue recordings, but within the proportions of the whole one rarely has the feeling that there is anything missing or that ‘more’ is needed. Without taking us beyond tradition, Dohnány also manages to suspend this work nicely in its own temporal paradox, inhabiting a place aware of and sensitive to Bach and Beethoven, sidling up to Wagner without actually embracing him in public, and also seeping into later composers such as Carl Nielsen. I hear the influence of Bruckner on Nielsen in a few places in this recording, but would point to the last couple of magnificent minutes in the first movement as fertile ground for this kind of cross-pollination.

The Scherzo can sound quite menacing in some recordings, but Dohnányi starts out playful, emphasising the wit and charm of the lighter material is more heroic than dark to my ears at the opposite end of the scale. The Adagio is given a Mahlerian weight without wallowing, though this is one aspect of this reading as a whole where in certain places a touch more momentum wouldn’t have done any harm. Dohnányi’s timings are not the shortest but also not the longest by some margin, and this is a subtle confrontation between profundity and lingering. Around the fourth minute in the Adagio is for instance not the strongest of moments in this recording, though Bruckner’s tricky orchestration can take some of the blame for this. Intonation amongst the shinier instruments is not always perfect in this live performance, though these occasional misalignments are never catastrophic. Where expressive points are crucial to the impact of the whole Dohnányi comes up trumps every time, and on each occasion I’ve returned to this CD it has been with a thrill of anticipation. That has to be a good thing.

Alternatives to this Bruckner Ninth are legion, and you can gather advice from many quarters about which might be preferable. I have an enduring affection for Bernard Haitink’s still remarkably good sounding 1965 Philips recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which plumbs greater depths than Dohnányi despite its age and occasional minor imperfections. I’ve had a listen to the Abbado DG Lucerne Festival Orchestra recording through a popular online streaming service and it does indeed sound very fine indeed. Other interpreters such as Günter Wand and Carlo Maria Giulini are all worth exploring, and our Bruckner symphony resource can provide some helpful guidelines. Versions with a completed fourth movement also exist, and Sir Simon Rattle’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI/Warner Classics is very good indeed (see review). Like adding extra octaves to a grand piano this alters the dynamic of the symphony, and I wouldn’t propose a completed version by way of comparison to the more commonly found three-movement version for this reason. The sense of premature abandonment at the end of his Adagio is palpable, and I am grateful that audience applause has been left out.

Fans of Christoph von Dohnányi’s conducting can add this CD to their collection with confidence, and fans of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony may also find new things to discover. This Philharmonia Orchestra performance is not quite a giant-killer, but it is certainly richly deserving of its place among this year’s crop of orchestral notables.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: John Quinn



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