Bruckner sy9 CCSSA42822
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Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No 9 in D minor WAB 109/143 (1887-94)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. 2021, Congress Center, Budapest, Hungary
Reviewed in surround sound

These musicians recorded Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony for Channel Classics back in 2014, and now offer the three movement Ninth. Fischer provides a note in the booklet which perhaps explains the long gap, telling us that Bruckner was 70 years and two months old when he finished his third movement, and writes, “having great respect for the work and even after many live performances, I wanted to wait patiently and not record this symphony until I myself reached my 70th birthday. Now, here is the recording which I dedicate to my beloved Bruckner.” So whatever else we have here, it is surely a considered interpretation.

Yet the disc has already been rather coolly reviewed in various places, with relatively little consideration of any wider context of Bruckner performance. Perhaps this points to an increasing partisanship nowadays inseparable from Bruckner criticism and appreciation. It is too easy to say there are now two schools, but there is surely a spectrum, between what one commentator called “the mystics and the modernizers”.

For some the former school with its broad tempi and monumental style has its roots in the Austro-German ideology of the 1930’s. Julian Horton’s book “Bruckner’s Symphonies” (Cambridge 2004) examines the “Nazi appropriation of Bruckner” and quotes another scholar (Gilliam) as wondering if “important post-war Bruckner interpretations (exemplified by slow tempi and lush harmonies) have unwittingly carried over this phenomenon of Bruckner as Nazi religious icon”. Leon Botstein, a conductor and scholar, wrote in his “Music and Ideology: Thoughts on Bruckner” (Musical Quarterly, 1996), of ways to rethink Brucknerian performance practice:
“The first is to reconsider the source and character of the monumentality of Bruckner's symphonic work. It may be that the aspects that appealed to the Nazis are those that demand rejection. A Schubertian Bruckner, fleet in pacing, lyrical, flexible, and transparent in timbre, is long overdue.” Botstein later concludes: “These qualities, rather than the somber, dour, and frightening dimension that emerges from the "classic" Bruckner readings of Furtwangler, Karajan, and Wand, are in short supply in performances of Bruckner”.

Of course, these are not uncontroversial views. But I mention them here, because these aspects of Bruckner scholarship do touch on the history of performance style, and are not often mentioned in connection with recent approaches on record. With regard to flexibility of tempo, as indicated by markings added by the first editors who had contact with Bruckner, and later removed, another scholar, Harry Halbreich, asked whether a unified (i.e. relatively inflexible) tempo is really needed in Bruckner? His firm negative finding is corroborated in the composer’s letters. The chapter by John Williamson “Conductors and Bruckner” in the “Cambridge Companion to Bruckner” shows the evolution in Bruckner conducting to be complex, with swifter, flexible, modernist Bruckner having its roots in Furtwangler, the younger Bohm and Walter, Horenstein, and Jochum – though not in all their later recordings.

Williamson considers some recordings and movement timings, although not of the Ninth. He concludes “Within the style that has evolved since the fifties, there is both a mystic-monumental approach and a swifter alternative, but both have been increasingly caught up in the search for a unified tempo which may never have been Bruckner’s intention.” In his 2012 booklet note to Schuricht’s recording of the 8th and 9th, Williamson writes of Schuricht’s characteristic tempo fluctuation “this ebb and flow came from…instructions included in the published edition of 1892 (of the 8th). Benjamin Korstvedt has argued persuasively that these simply make explicit the expressive inclinations of most conductors of the late 19th century.” The so-called modernizers might, as so often, be aiming to restore a lost authenticity.

Coming to this new disc of the 9th against this background debate, I fear it might not be one that will provoke anyone to rethink their views on the above matters. But let’s begin with basic tempi, or rather timings – an imperfect guide but one at least using objective data. The typical timing for the three-movement symphony is about an hour (the movement timings being very roughly 25/10/25 minutes) - Karajan, Horenstein/BBC, Wand/Berlin, Haitink/Amsterdam and Skrowaczevski, among many other important Brucknerians, are all between the 60- and 62-minute mark. There is a notorious outlier – Celibidache’s 77-minute odyssey. Few versions come close to that, though Haitink/LSO and Nézet-Séguin both take 67, and Giulini took 68:30 with the VPO.

But for this new disc, we need to look at the sub-60-minute group. Of those known to me, five are close enough to 60 as to make little audible difference; Walter/CSO 58:36, Furtwangler 58:49, Harnoncourt 58:54, Simone Young 59:01, and Blomstedt 59:21.  Dohnányi in Cleveland (57:57) is close too, and Ivor Bolton (in a rather overlooked cycle from Salzburg) is not far away at 57:31. Norrington unsurprisingly is swifter than most at 51:59. But the quickest of all known to me is Marcus Bosch in Aachen who offers the four movement version, but for movements 1 to 3 takes 49:31.

Such timings are not just recent phenomena, for in Berlin in 1950 Knappertsbusch needed 56:45. Two masters provided famous accounts with the Vienna Philharmonic, namely Carl Schuricht (56:24) and especially Walter (live in 1950), taking just 50:30. Volkmar Andrae’s Vienna Symphony Orchestra account broadcast in 1953 took 50:42, so one begins to wonder how the dial moved to a 60-minute norm.

This new account from Iván Fischer takes 55:33, so is near the middle of this sub-60-minute group - there is nothing much in this new release to alarm those wedded to one of the many other fine accounts, and in the wider context outlined earlier its tempi and flexibility are unremarkable. Of course, there are factors other than overall timing that characterise a performance.

The traversal of the mighty first movement is accomplished in a number of ways. The tempi – as we have seen – are quite within a reasonable span of expectation of a modern version. The relative swiftness (22:26 suffices for these 567 bars) does not impair the power of the exposition, which is portentous enough - it can be a short step in Bruckner from the mightily portentous to the merely pompous. There are some flexible moments, but nothing that does not serve the unfolding drama. Fischer is here and there slightly impatient, reading “crescendo” as getting (a little) faster as well as louder from bar 42, and again at bar 291. He likes to keep things flowing, taking little notice of the “ritard” marking at bar 129 ahead of the return of Tempo 1, since he was almost at that speed anyway. The tension ebbs a little during the development but recovers for the recap and especially the coda, sonorously done.

The scherzo offers the tempo that will most surprise many listeners. It takes just 9:38 for the whole movement. To put that in perspective, even the overall super-fast pair Bosch (10:46) and Norrington (11:08) give more space to this scherzo. (Their class-leading overall brevity among modern discs is achieved by a finale of 18:40 (Norrington) and 18:49 (Bosch) against a norm of 25:00 or so). But Fischer’s swift tempo for the scherzo still makes musical sense, and does not diminish the ‘demonic’ quality that many have heard in this music. These demons are just more fleet of foot (or of cloven hoof) than most. The playing is alert enough to keep the themes stamping with metrical precision. The remarkable trio opens with Bruckner’s fastest symphonic music anyway, and its staccato quavers are deftly touched in (Fischer is precise about accents). After the listener’s initial adjustment this swift tempo works well, but this is the movement to hear of you want to try before you buy.

The Adagio finale – or rather the last of the three completed movements – opens impressively, the leap of a minor ninth and its continuation beautifully played by the Budapest strings. The first climax comes after just 17 bars, when that minor ninth becomes a major ninth in the horns (1.55), which the trumpets adorn with their curt fanfare. In this SACD recording one hears the whole of that ff horn phrase, including its bottom notes which are often covered in recordings – a serious loss. The “farewell to life” theme’s descent is accorded beautiful sostenuto playing, and each section of the complex movement follows its predecessor with the requisite sense of inevitability. The final climax ending with its powerful discord (bar 206, 19:30) sets the seal on an account of the Adagio which is convincing on its own terms, but those terms include a relatively cool objective feeling that prevails. In particular, Bruckner indicates feierlich (“solemn”) for both outer movements, and that solemnity is rather lacking compared to many older versions.

Fischer is unapologetic about still offering just the three-movement version in 2022. Of the various completions offered by scholars and composers, he writes “I salute their work. But after that endlessly held horn note at the end of the third movement, I feel that this was his last breath and nothing more should be said.” He is not alone in that, even now. And that “endlessly held horn note” is played here with impeccable intonation and tone.

Overall, a release to hear and enjoy, if not one to dislodge your favourites, whether of the traditional or revisionist approaches. It is possible that a recording of one of those “many live performances” the conductor mentioned in his booklet note would have made a more compelling disc than this studio - and slightly studio-bound - version.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Ralph Moore

Published: November 30, 2022