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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, (1894 original version. Ed. Nowak, 1951) [63:10]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live 23-25 February 2018, Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh

Although Bruckner didn’t live to finish it, the Ninth is probably my favourite Bruckner symphony to hear in performance. Despite ending with an Adagio rather than the composer’s intended conclusion, it can still make a remarkable impact. While writing it, Bruckner, plagued by deteriorating health, torment and anguish. wrote, “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 decline and mental instability of Bruckner’s final years his breath-taking writing feels remarkably assured, technically daring and harmonically formidable.

Intending to dedicate the score to God, right up to his death in 1896 Bruckner was working on the fourth movement of the Ninth and left behind material in a fragmentary state. Clearly believing that he wouldn’t finish the Finale, Bruckner advised that his Te Deum could be used instead; it has been in the past, but rarely so today. There has been a number of completions, most recently Gerd Schaller’s revised 2018 version.

For this recording Manfred Honeck chooses to use the original three movement version of 1894 edited by Leopold Nowak in 1951, which is the version most commonly encountered. Incidentally, the booklet notes here state, ‘1896; unfinished, edition Nowak’ which is in effect one and the same thing. I’ve been informed by the Pittsburgh Orchestra artistic planning that “Manfred Honeck’s specific score actually shows the year 1974. This is yet again referencing that Nowak version from 1951. The 1951 version had some mistakes in the print, so it was fixed in 1974, thus showing 1974 on the score.”

Honeck’s firm hold over splendidly unified playing throughout is strikingly consistent - noticeably clean and detailed, but never at the expense of expression. The opening pages of the first movement Feierlich, misterioso make me sit up; they have a distinctly ominous feeling and are followed by a glowing wash of orchestral sound from the Pittsburgh players. Here and throughout the performance, the majestic, surging power of the climaxes is as good as I have heard. I have seen the Scherzo, a difficult movement to characterise, described astutely as “wonderfully ambiguous”; as throughout the entire performance, Honeck maintains its inscrutable personality and compellingly sustains a sense of momentum within its various climaxes. Taking twenty-eight minutes to perform here, the massive Adagio Is afforded intense concentration and sounds sublime. Honeck convincingly attains that special character of near spirituality which contrasts starkly with the radiant, dazzlingly potent climaxes. (Incidentally, I had not noticed before how similar the two episodes at points 17.43 and 18.15 are to a recurring theme in Miklós Rózsa’s score to the epic, 1959 film Ben-Hur). The solo contributions are uniformly first class and the tonal splendour of the string section is especially memorable. As usual when reviewing the Ninth, I feel compelled to mention those golden toned Wagner tubas which sound so magnificent here.

Honeck’s Pittsburgh forces are in commendable form here and this unquestionably joins my favourite recordings. This is a live performance in the Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh and on this hybrid SACD, played on my standard unit, the renowned Soundmirror team has provided first class sound providing clarity, detail and satisfying balance. There is very little extraneous noise and applause at the conclusion has been removed. Honeck has written the insightful and informative booklet essay which is really top drawer and even gives numerous timings to locate specific points of interest in the performance.

As a guide, I list my first-choice recordings that incidentally all use the 1894 original version (ed. Nowak 1951): of the more established recordings, there is the magnificent live 1998 Philharmonie, Berlin account from Günter Wand conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker on BMG/RCA Red Seal. Also, the powerful 1964 Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin performance from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Eugen Jochum on Deutsche Grammophon. In more recent years, standing out is Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a riveting live recording from 2013 at Lucerne Concert Hall on Deutsche Grammophon. With the Philharmonie Festiva, Gerd Schaller’s inspiring live 2018 account from Abteikirche Ebrach is in the highest echelons too. Schaller’s performance includes his own mightily impressive completion of the Finale (in his revision of 2018) on Profil (review). I have greatly enjoyed the live 2018 account from Basilica of the Monastery of St. Florian, Austria, also released in 2019 and compellingly performed by the Münchner Philharmoniker under Valery Gergiev on the orchestra’s own MPHIL label.

The ‘Pittsburgh Live!’ series on Reference Classics is aptly demonstrating the exceptional quality of work from Manfred Honeck and his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Honeck and his Pittsburgh players are in majestic form here in Bruckner’s Ninth, with a performance that firmly holds the attention.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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