Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor WAB 109 (1894 original version, ed. Nowak 1951)
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live 14 December, 1961; Free Trade Hall, Manchester
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC486 [57:43]
This recording will be welcomed in some quarters as a previously unissued rarity in considerably better sound than would be the case had Andrew Rose not worked his usual magic on the tape of the FM mono broadcast to eliminate hiss, correct drop-outs, even-out dynamic fluctuations and release the whole thing in Ambient Stereo. The sound is still a bit thin and glaring by modern standards but we are talking about what is essentially a historical live performance, and as such it is very acceptable. We have two other recordings by Barbirolli of this symphony, both from 1966: one with the Berlin Philharmonic and another with the Hallé flying solo as opposed to the performance here, where they are combined with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra.
Barbirolli habitually adopted fast speeds in Bruckner. His beat can be fluid and mercurial – or erratic and impulsive, depending on how you hear it. As a non-fan of Jochum’s Bruckner, I tend to belong to the second camp, finding the approach of both conductors too jerky and disjointed, without the over-arching span and sense of flow I prefer to hear in Bruckner.
There are other problems: some of the playing is scrappy, and some entries are hesitant and not together, as might be expected from two combined orchestras not over-familiar with the score. The brass can be coarse and blatty, the strings a bit screechy. In addition, there is a fair amount of audience coughing and Glorious John contributes his habitual, audible “groanalong”. However, those flaws are most apparent in the first movement which is either exciting or taken too fast, depending on your taste, and there are inspired moments when Barbirolli’s spirited and heartfelt manner pays dividends: such a one is the sudden acceleration of tempo for the re-appearance of the bucolic second subject at 6’47”. The standard of playing improves considerably in the aggressive Scherzo and the Adagio goes best of all. The opening is still too gung-ho for me, lacking the otherworldly serenity I prize in that music and there is some decidedly slipshod lack of rhythmic co-ordination ten minutes into the movement between the descending octave steps for the string and the brass chords, but the rough grandeur of the closing minutes compensates.
The introductory and closing radio announcements are included here.
I cannot in all honesty call this a classic performance and would suggest that the inconsistencies in execution and indifferent sound render it more attractive to admirers of Barbirolli than to traditional Brucknerians but it is certainly to Pristine’s credit that they have made it available.