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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (Vienna version 1891) [60.12]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Nowak) [63.06]
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, August 2012, 26 August 2013, Lucerne Festival KKL
ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC30489 [60.12 + 63.06]

Those who loved Claudio Abbado as one of the greatest conductors of the last half century will want to own this pair of discs. The recording of the 9th Symphony is from the conductor’s last public performance before his death, and listening to it is to hear it as a valediction. Indeed, given that this unfinished work was also the composer’s final utterance, the sense of double loss is unavoidable.

For all that, I have some reservations. Abbado was drawn increasingly to Bruckner’s work as he grew older – I recall a very fine performance of the 5th Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall with his Lucerne Orchestra in what may well have been his final London performance. It had all the hallmarks of Abbado, of warmth, humanity, and sensitivity, and he found a rare beauty even in some of the knottier moments. Those qualities made him a consummate interpreter of Mendelssohn and Schubert, and many others. But Bruckner has other sides – ruggedness and terseness - which seemed to come less easily to Abbado. He gives us the poetry rather than the rough-hewn, despite a wonderful sense of flow throughout. The poetic is an important aspect of Bruckner, but not the whole.

The performance of Symphony No. 1 is problematic in other ways. Unusually among Brucknerians, Abbado seems always to have opted for the Vienna version of 1891(Brosche Edition), while most conductors have opted for the Linz version of 1877/1884, according to either Nowak or Haas. Although Bruckner approved the Vienna version, scholars have generally dissented. It is very different from either the original Linz of 1866, or the ‘later’ Linz of 1877/84. In places, it sounds not the same work, rather – to my ears – an uneasy mix of styles, too smooth in both conception and development. If that can be overlooked, there is much to enjoy in the fine playing on this disc.

In the 9th Symphony, we have a different story. Here Abbado opts for Nowak, the choice of most conductors, so there are no great textual issues (the Cohrs edition of 2000 makes only minor corrections, which are largely typographical). The performance, as one would expect, has both poetry and deep feeling. It is certainly valedictory, and is very beautiful indeed. The opening bars rise out of an almost Wagnerian sense of mystery and Abbado works his extraordinary powers of suggesting hidden depths in the balancing of the orchestra. The effect is magical, before moving on to the striking main theme. Lovely too is the way the woodwinds make their bird-like interventions. Details sometimes obscured are carefully delineated. The marking of the movement is Feierlich, misterioso. Feierlich can mean either ‘solemn’ or ‘festive’, depending on context (Wagner uses the marking, in the solemn sense, for Siegfried’s funeral procession). For Abbado, there is certainly solemnity (from around the 10 minute mark, even something funereal). Some listeners may be distracted by an evenness of tempo through the whole movement, hearing it as too much smoothing-out of Brucknerian contrasts.

The Scherzo has similar merits of great beauty, extraordinary playing and a sensitivity to its contrasting moods. It is one of the finest movements Bruckner wrote, and Abbado has its measure, even if in the trio his phrasing might have drawn out more of its rustic quality – but one cannot have everything!

The Adagio final movement is certainly Langsam, feierlich as the composer required. This performance has the suggestion of a deeply personal, inward meditation. Perhaps it appears in places more Mahler than Bruckner, notably in the opening, and again the poetic is more striking than the dissonance that is part of Bruckner’s troubled vision. Abbado’s view has a certain serenity and confidence that has its own integrity. There are many other possible interpretations (as in the solemn last movement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony), and no single performance can capture them all. Abbado offers us one vision, and sustains it incomparably.

This recording is wholly from the final concert. On Deutsche Grammophon (4793441) (in association with Accentus) there is a recording compiled from several performances, including this concert. Differences are minuscule, but Abbado lovers will be moved by the integrity of this single, unrepeatable performance.

Michael Wilkinson

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