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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, 1894 Original Version (1951, Leopold Nowak)
Orchestre National de la RTF / Lovro von Matačić
rec. live at concerts on Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 29 January 1963
ALTUS ALT380 [60:00]

When you play a recording of Bruckner’s Ninth by Lovro von Matačić it is rather like looking at a portrait by Rembrandt. The sense this is a performance by Matačić, just as this is obviously a painting by Rembrandt, is unmistakable. They share the same eclipses that descend into darkness, the halftones that are so dramatic and the brooding duskiness. They share the absolute clarity of texture and the constancy of their magnificent brushstrokes. At his best, rarely does a conductor make Bruckner’s Ninth such a tragic and dark symphonic journey as Lovro von Matačić does. It doesn’t matter if Matačić is playing Bruckner Nine in Tokyo, Berlin or Paris, or whether the structure of his performance is marked by such different shifts in tempo, a Matačić Bruckner Ninth is as audible to the ear as one by Furtwängler, Skrowaczewski or Jochum. It has greatness etched all over it.

There are six Matačić Bruckner Ninths that I have heard, dating from 1958 in Berlin through to 1983 in Vienna. They do, it must be said, vary in quality, but this was usual for this great conductor in Bruckner who was rarely constant in this music; but no conductor can be in this greatest of symphonies. The general rule of thumb with a Matačić Bruckner Ninth is that if the performance comes from the 1950s up to the early 1970s then it is almost certain to be of outstanding quality. His two performances from the 1980s, one done in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic (December 1980), the other with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (March 1983), are much less interesting recordings than his earlier ones. In both cases the playing is uneven, and neither performance exerts the same kind of heft or impact that the earlier ones do. One should also rule out his August 1972 Zagreb Philharmonic performance – not for its musical strengths, which are considerable, but because it’s almost impossible to get hold of.

That leaves three Matačić Ninths, as it happens his first recorded performances of the symphony. His 1958 Berlin Staatskapelle (on Weitblick) and 1968 NHK Symphony Orchestra (on King, Japan) are both magisterial, weighty and sublime, though the NHK recording will certainly not be to all tastes. One can admire the beauty of the string playing (although the violins can, and do, have a piercing steeliness that is uncomfortable to listen to at times). The stamina of the Japanese players is remarkable, especially to sustain the Adagio at Matačić’s 30-minute tempo – a span that was unusual in the 1960s (though Matačić had almost equalled it in Berlin a decade earlier). The brass, however, are very typical of Japanese brass players from this period – they struggle with anything less than a fortissimo and their accuracy is at best superb, at worst damning. The Berlin Staatskapelle are much better integrated as an orchestra, not to say refined, though the recorded sound is less tolerable.

This 29th January 1963 Paris version, just issued on Altus, with the Orchestre National de la RTF is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it places on record a French orchestra playing a major Bruckner symphony – which is in itself something of a rarity. Indeed, this Matačić Bruckner Ninth is probably the earliest recording of the symphony by a French orchestra now available on CD. Secondly, it’s a markedly different kind of performance than either the Berlin or Tokyo ones. Lopping a good five minutes off the Adagio, Matačić takes a much swifter view of the work – though listen to this French orchestra, especially as they sculpt their way through the Adagio as if they are carving through granite, and the sheer weight of their playing gives an entirely different impression. The scale of the string sound is colossal, and much of this almost certainly has to do with Matačić’s bowing demands which although not unique to him are certainly not observed by most conductors in the Ninth. The G-saite (or G-string) bowing which Bruckner marks in his score is almost universally noted, as are the “gestrichen” and “gezogen” markings which give the strings so much expression and depth of bowing. Accents are much more likely to be played in a Matačić Ninth, and in the Paris Ninth they are often astonishing. Listen to the basses at 5’05 in the first movement before the rising cello figure, or the basses at 16’36 in the Adagio, a few minutes before the climax, to hear how the accents are bowed. One hears these effects in both his Berlin and Tokyo Ninths, but in Paris it’s just that much more overwhelming, just that much more thrilling. By any measure, this is one of the most Titanic performances of the Ninth ever recorded, with as pure an example of on-the-string bow playing as one could expect to hear in Bruckner from this period.

Much of this has to do with the recorded sound which is magnificent for a recording that is over half a century old. The sound is very full, but extremely well balanced with neither the brass nor the woodwind overwhelming the depth and breadth of the strings. Unlike the NHK Ninth, where the violins sound under-nourished, the Paris strings are burnished and oaken. Indeed, it’s that very depth of tone which gives this movement its own sense of space and time that defies the clock. This is an orchestra that has the power of iron and steel moving majestically through the ocean of Bruckner’s music. Less noticeable is that distinctive French reediness in the oboes and clarinets (which was certainly much more apparent in an earlier Strauss and Wagner disc from this same conductor and orchestra), though the occasional vibrato in the horns remains distinctly French, even if Matačić does try to give a more classic vibrato to other brass instruments as well. Perhaps the trumpets are a touch over-loud at measure 6 of the Adagio (though again, the accenting is just phenomenal), but nowhere near as unrestrained as their colleagues in Tokyo would be half a decade later. Climaxes are shattering. Listen from 21’31 in the first movement, from the deep pedal of the timpani and the basses to the movement’s close and the effect Matačić achieves isn’t just of orchestral depth and spaciousness it’s also of a Brucknerian sonority that makes the very foundations quake. Similarly, the climax of the Adagio builds inexorably from 19’17 with triumphant and noble brass and that collapses into a maelstrom of dissonance that is as savage and powerful as any on disc.

This is a quite remarkable Ninth to set beside the best – Karajan and Abbado, both live with the Berliner Philharmoniker (1985 and 1997) and Skrowaczewski in Tokyo.

Marc Bridle

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