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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1890-96)
Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden
Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. Liederhalle, Stuttgart, 1996
SWR CLASSIC SWR19411CD [62:19]

During the last months of his life, Bruckner must surely have known that he might not complete the Ninth Symphony, and that the three completed movements might have to provide a convincing whole. Is it a coincidence that the Adagio concludes in valediction? However, the composer did leave an abundance of sketches for his unfinished finale, and there are now various completions of them, with several recordings available, not least from Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

The convention remains that the three-movement torso is the accepted version of the Ninth, and the vast majority of performances continue to present this highly satisfying version, on disc as well as in the concert hall. When Carlo Maria Giulini conducted this live recording at Stuttgart in the centenary year of 1996, he therefore performed three movements rather than four, and with hugely satisfying results.

Giulini was an excellent Bruckner conductor, a master of pacing, balance and nobility of line. He left a notable recorded legacy, though he did not record the full canon of the symphonies. His performances of the Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in 1988, and with the Chicago Symphony, recorded in 1976, have long been regarded as among the finest available. Which inevitably begs the question: how does this live recording from Stuttgart in 1996 stand in comparison? The answer is: very well indeed.

The recorded sound achieved by South West German Radio is good: it is well balanced and with an appropriate dynamic range, while the audience is well behaved and seldom makes its presence felt. The orchestral playing, too, is of a high standard. Although the SWR orchestra does not have the reputation of those from Vienna and Chicago, they are fine musicians of international calibre and it would be invidious to pretend otherwise. If there is a difference between this performance and its renowned predecessors, it is in matters of orchestral detail rather than of substance. To give two examples: at the end of the first movement the discord of the trumpets could have achieved a greater penetration in the texture, with more thrilling results; and earlier in the movement, the ausdrucksvoll (expressive line) of the cellos at bar 115 might have brought forth a more satisfying fullness and richness in the texture.

In the demonic music of the Scherzo, the eerie combination of oboes and clarinets against the pizzicato strings is captured most effectively; so too the crescendi until the stamping rhythm is allowed to pound forth in full orchestra. The central trio has hints of lyricism but in truth offers little relief, until the Scherzo is heard once more.

It is perhaps in the great Adagio finale that Giulini’s performance can be experienced at its finest. This movement extends across a span approaching thirty minutes, and the maestro's control of line is particularly successful. All the important points of reference from the earlier phase of the movement are characterised in order to make their mark: the aspiring first subject, the fate motif of the trumpet, the solemn chorale that Bruckner described as 'the farewell to life'. After developments featuring the ebb and flow of tension and relaxation, including some intensely powerful climaxes involving the fate motif in particular, the final stages of Giulini’s performance reach towards consolation and calm, in the heavenly key of E major.

Terry Barfoot


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