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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1896)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 13-17 January 2014, Philharmonie, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900173 [57.10]

The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks continues its projected Bruckner cycle under Mariss Jansons on the BR-Klassik label with this live 2014 recording of the Ninth Symphony. When complete, this will be the label’s second Bruckner cycle, the first having been released in 2014 under the baton of Lorin Maazel. The preceding release in this ongoing Jansons series the Eighth Symphony was a recording I certainly relished hearing (review).

Jansons uses here the 1894 original version, edited by Leopold Nowak (1951), which has become established with the orchestra, having been used for recordings under Jochum (1954), Schuricht (1963), Kubelik (1984), Maazel (1999), Haitink (2001) and Blomstedt (2009). It is by far the most widely used version of the Ninth, chosen for recordings by such eminent conductors as Abbado, Barenboim, Bernstein, Celibidache, Gergiev, Giulini, Karajan, Thielemann and Wand.

Bruckner was occupied with his Ninth up to the time of his death in 1896. He managed to complete the first three movements but was able to leave only sketches for the finale. At Bruckner’s own suggestion the unfinished Ninth was often performed with the Te deum serving as the final movement. There has been a number of completions of the unfinished fourth movement based on Bruckner’s surviving manuscripts, notably a performing version by William Carragan, premiered in 1983 with subsequent revisions. Other completions undertaken include those by Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca (1984), who later collaborated with John A. Phillips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs (1992), Nors S. Josephson (1992), Sébastien Letocart (2008) and Gerd Schaller (2016).

Torment and anguish plagued Bruckner whilst writing his Ninth, a score he intended to dedicate to God but never lived to complete. Bruckner said, “I have served my purpose on earth; I have done what I could, and there is only one thing I would still like to be granted: the strength to finish my Ninth Symphony.” Despite the physical and mental instability of Bruckner’s final years, his breath-taking writing is remarkably assured, technically daring and harmonically formidable.

Despite having heard the Ninth several times in live concert and many times on record, I still experience a sense of awe on hearing it. I recall a glorious performance from WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Marek Janowski as part of Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2016, whose magnificent waves of sound reverberated around the Frauenkirche. A few months ago, at Musikfest Berlin 2018 I enjoyed a similarly stunning performance with Valery Gergiev conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie.

Undaunted by the scale of task, Mariss Jansons and his world-class orchestra tackle Bruckner’s awesome structures with resolve and assurance, creating a rich and powerful orchestral sonority. In terms of pace and control, Jansons conducts with a sense of abiding intelligence. His approach to Bruckner’s vast dynamic contrasts is bold and effective, from lovely piano sections to incandescent climaxes of remarkable potency. The weight and power are especially noticeable in the opening movement, when at points it feels as if surging waves of orchestral force are pushing me back into my chair. Notable is the prevailing character of dark foreboding that Jansons infuses into this extremely disconcerting Scherzo. Forming such an integral part of the orchestra, the sonorous brass, including the splendid Wagner tubas, sound as if it has been dipped in molten gold. Characterised by the intense emotion of a near spiritual quality in the sublime Adagio, the effect of the string playing is at times spine-tingling, of an elevated standard that one encounters only in the finest orchestras. I feel compelled to repeat how magnificent those Wagner tubas sound! The international reputation of the Bavarian orchestra continues to grow and Jansons’ powerful interpretation of Bruckner’s Ninth makes a significant impact.

Recorded in 2014 at live concerts at Philharmonie, Munich, the sound has pleasing clarity notably with regard to the amount of fine detail revealed, especially in the woodwind, a feature so often clouded on recordings. Ideally, I prefer some space around my recordings and here I find the recording a touch too close for my taste, resulting in some very slight peak distortion. Occasionally I can detect what I guess to be some humming from the conductor which might prove annoying to some but doesn’t bother me unduly. Applause has been left in at the conclusion but thankfully there is none of that awful yelling one can encounter. Jörg Handstein has written a readable and informative booklet essay entitled the ‘Path to the Final Summit’.   

Jansons and his Bavarian forces are in admirable form here but nonetheless don’t displace my first-choice recordings. For their towering level of thrilling intensity and polished playing, my treasured favourites are the live 1998 Philharmonie, Berlin account from Günter Wand conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker on RCA Red Seal and Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra recorded live in 2013 at Lucerne Concert Hall on Deutsche Grammophon.

Michael Cookson

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