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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Nowak edition, 1951)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. live, 7 August 2014, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg

Christoph von Dohnányi has had a long and distinguished relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra. He became their Principal Guest Conductor in 1994. Subsequently he was Principal Conductor (1997-2008) and on stepping down from that role he was accorded the title Honorary Conductor for Life. That title was, I think, more than a gesture of politeness: it signified both parties’ wish to retain a close relationship and I think I’m right in saying that Dohnányi has returned to conduct the orchestra every season since then. This performance of Bruckner’s Ninth was recorded at the 2014 Salzburg Festival at the start of a series of concerts marking Dohnányi’s 85th birthday, which fell on 8 September 2014.

A couple of years ago I reviewed a live recording by this partnership of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. Whilst not dislodging leading recommendations it was still a reading that I admired so I approached this account of the Ninth with some expectations. I’ve had two other recordings of this symphony for review in recent months, both very different from each other and both, like this newcomer, live recordings. Simone Young’s Hamburg recording is admirable in many ways though it also throws up quite a few question marks (review); Claudio Abbado’s magnificent Lucerne recording was much more satisfying (review). Putting my cards on the table at the outset I’ll say that in my estimation Dohnányi does not scale the heights that the Abbado performance attains but offers a more traditionally nuanced view of the score than Simone Young.

Dohnányi opens the symphony impressively. There’s tension at the outset and the great unison tutti (2:25) is thrust home powerfully. Furthermore, the bars leading up to that tutti constitute a very good preparation. All this augurs well. The movement unfolds with authority and a sense of inevitability. Dohnányi conveys the lyricism of several stretches of music. However, in his useful notes Eric Levi comments that despite the lyrical episodes “a sense of unease is never far from the surface” and that comes across in Dohnányi’s reading also. The Philharmonia play the big climaxes with unforced power – the brass section had a fine day in Salzburg. The massive climax (14:13) really hits home and I noted that unlike Simone Young, who presses into the climax with urgency, Dohnányi keeps his tempo rock-steady in the lead-up to the climax – as does Abbado – greatly to the music’s benefit. Throughout the movement Dohnányi ensures that the transitions and changes of pace make complete sense; he sees the movement as a whole, which not all conductors manage. He’s spacious in his approach, though not as marvellously as Abbado, and I find his performance satisfying.

In the scherzo the dynamic contrasts are expertly calibrated. The monolithic, pounding tutti material is suitably forceful but it’s not over-emphatically rammed home as I felt was the case in the Young performance. The trio is light on its feet. In this second movement Dohnányi conveys the essential darkness in the music.

I felt that the violins’ cri de coeur at the start of the Adagio was overdone in the Young performance; it sounded like Mahler’s Ninth. Like Abbado, Dohnányi is more restrained here, though there’s still ample feeling. There’s stoicism in his reading which is far closer to the patrician Abbado. This reading of the Adagio is searching and it’s patiently paced. I warmed to the way the long string melodies are allowed to unfold in a dignified fashion. Dohnányi may not wear his heart on his sleeve – thank goodness – but throughout this long movement you know that he and his players are giving voice to an eloquent statement by Bruckner. The final climax (20:24 – 21:07) is awe-inspiring and, as he does throughout the symphony, Dohnányi prepares the way to this climax most effectively. The coda (from 23:55) is quite simple and gently sad; it should never be forgotten that Bruckner never intended this as his musical Abschied.

As I said at the outset, this performance doesn’t match the very special experience that is the Abbado performance but, then, that’s one of the great Bruckner performances of recent years. However, Dohnányi’s is a considerable performance in its own right. The Philharmonia plays very well for a conductor who they clearly and rightly esteem. The recording is good. The audience is commendably silent throughout and, happily, no applause is allowed to intrude at the end; rather, we can be left with our own thoughts.

John Quinn


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