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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 9 in D minor [60:10]
Adagio for String Orchestra in G-flat major (Third movement of the String Quintet, arr. Hans Stadlmair) [16:01]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. January 1995 (symphony), June 1997 (Adagio)
Presto CD
DECCA 458 964-2 [76:43]

Between 2005 and 2012 Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig performed all the Bruckner symphonies in Leipzig and live recordings taken from those performances were issued on the Querstand label as a set of 10 SACDs. I’ve never heard those recordings, though I understand they are highly prized and you can find the complete set advertised for astronomical prices on the internet. A few of those recordings – including the November 2011 reading of the Ninth (review) – have been available separately but I think I’m right in saying that the complete set was deleted some time ago. It would be a great service if Querstand were to make the set available once more; I for one would be eager to hear it.

These present Decca recordings were made shortly before Herbert Blomstedt’s period as principal conductor of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (1998-2005).

I’ve not encountered many recordings of the Bruckner Ninth which included an extra piece of music, though I’m sure there are quite a few out there. Here, Decca add a generous bonus in the form of the arrangement for full string orchestra of the Adagio from Bruckner’s String Quintet (1878-79). This was made by the Austrian conductor and composer Hans Stadlmair (1929-2019). I’m afraid I’ve been unable to discover when Stadlmair made his arrangement. I’ve not heard it before but it seems to me to work extremely well. Brucker’s original scoring was for two violins, two violas and cello but the transition to full string orchestra suits the music very well. Though double basses are involved the result doesn’t sound bottom-heavy, especially in this excellent performance. The Quintet was composed between the Fifth and Sixth symphonies so it’s mature Bruckner. The strings of the Gewandhausorchester play it superbly and it seems to me that Blomstedt paces the music ideally.

The only thing that puzzles me about the inclusion of this music is the placing on the CD. I’ve heard performances of the Ninth Symphony to which have been added a speculative reconstruction of Bruckner’s extensive sketches for the finale. I’ve found these versions very interesting and they’re the product of considerable scholarship. However, the more I’ve reflected on the Ninth I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to hear any music after the last great Adagio. When I listen to that movement, I’m unsurprised that Bruckner wrestled for the last two years of his life – literally until the day of his death – to finish the finale. How could he convincingly follow that Adagio? All of which makes me think that Decca would have been better advised to put the Stadlmair arrangement first on the disc. That’s the order in which I’ve played the disc and I moved smartly to stop the disc after the last notes of the symphony’s Adagio have died away.

The unavailability of the Querstand cycle means that I’ve heard too little of Herbert Blomstedt in Bruckner. There are his very fine Dresden recordings of the Fourth and Seventh symphonies, recently reissued by MDG (review), and there’s also a distinguished account of the Third in a deluxe box of all the symphonies issued on the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label (review). All three of these recordings have shown that he is an authoritative and understanding Bruckner conductor. Does this account of the Ninth measure up to the standards I’ve come to expect? In a word, yes,

The huge first movement unfolds very convincingly. In his valuable notes Andrew Huth observes that in this movement “[t]here are many quiet passages, but few moments of genuine repose”. How true that is and Blomstedt brings out the tension in the music, without ever making his interpretation seem overwrought; dignity is never lost. His fine sense of structure enables him to take a long view and Bruckner’s substantial paragraphs all make complete sense, both in themselves and in relation to the movement as a whole. Throughout, I felt the music was in the safest of hands. The playing of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig is superb, not least in terms of their wide dynamic range. The aforementioned quiet passages are delivered with consistent refinement while there’s a monumental might to the climaxes. In these climaxes we hear, thrillingly voiced, the majestic power of the Leipzig brass section. Those who have been following Andris Nelsons’ DG Bruckner cycle will be aware of this orchestra’s prowess; this recording confirms that their collective pedigree in Bruckner is long-established.

At the start of the Scherzo, what Andrew Huth refers to as the “strange harmonic half-light” registers ideally. Blomstedt’s performance of the Scherzo material is characterised by a strong rhythmic impulse and plenty of energy. When the loud tuttis are hammered out the power of the brass section really gets the listener’s attention. In the Trio the performance is light on its feet and the edginess and unease in the music comes across very successfully. I like the way the engineers give just the right degree of prominence to the very interesting woodwind parts.

In the first few minutes of the huge Adagio Blomstedt and his orchestra convey the great uncertainty and tension in Bruckner’s writing. In particular, the listener is made to wonder constantly where is the music going tonally – and that’s how it should be. The lyrical material (from 4:40) gives some relief but even here – and whenever Bruckner revisits this material - there’s tension and harmonic insecurity in the music. As I listened to this performance I marvelled again at the harmonic exploration and sense of tension which is perhaps unparalleled in Bruckner’s music. Blomstedt’s conducting consistently evidences a sense of purpose and direction. The brass chorale (from 19:11) leads to the most colossal climax in the entire work (20:14 – 20:54). This is thrust home with great potency by the Gewandhausorchester; listening to it is a daunting experience. In a masterstroke on the composer’s part, the shattering intensity of this climax is followed by an awestruck silence – which Blomstedt judges to perfection – followed by hushed music. Eventually (from 23:42) Bruckner achieves a degree of calm in the coda but I think it would be a mistake to call the closing mood one of repose. This is a magnificent reading of the Adagio. It’s a very long movement, but in the hands of Herbert Blomstedt it doesn’t seem long.

I admired this account of the Ninth greatly. Everything seems to fall into place with a sense of rightness and inevitability. I suppose that’s the hallmark of a master Bruckner conductor and a magnificent orchestra at work together. Decca’s sound for the symphony – and for the string Adagio as well – is very fine indeed. The engineers have produced sound of richness and body. There’s a wide dynamic range – the climaxes open up wonderfully – and you get to hear lots of inner detail.

This is a most distinguished disc and I’m delighted that Presto Classical have licensed it and restored it to circulation: it’s far too good to slumber in the archives.

John Quinn