Symphony No.9 in D minor [Edition by Leopold Nowak, published 1951]
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded on 17 & 21 February 2013 in the Barbican Hall, London
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As with Bernard Haitink's LSO Live recording of Bruckner's Fourth, this release of the Ninth will prove just as indispensable. Taken from two Barbican Hall concerts, the final result leaves no doubt about Haitink's visionary breadth and authority in this Symphony. Brucknerians will be eager to hear how Haitink justifies bringing the work in at 67 minutes, some five minutes longer than his Philips recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the longer durations distributed between the first and third movements.
The older Haitink gets (he turns 85 this year, on March 4), the more you are aware of him as an enabler of the troubled composer who has sustained the conductor's career for over four decades. Haitink has the ability to release the full drama of Bruckner's music – which is at its most extreme in the Ninth – at the same time ensuring that the structure is sufficiently shock-proof not to buckle under its emotional and spiritual weight. Haitink's deliberate pace allows the phrasing to breathe, with particulars of pointing and accents suggested rather than emphasised, and his balancing the music's form with its climactic mantra-like repetitions underpins the glorious inevitability of Bruckner's method. The transitional passages, particularly in the first movement, become a vital part of Bruckner's process of advance and retreat, which Haitink understands so thoroughly. The LSO's lithe playing is stuffed with detail and tonal sophistication – the variety of horn sound is superb and the string playing in the first movement's second theme is beyond beautiful – and the fabulous wind-playing gives the twittering birdsong of the scherzo's trio a spectral volatility.
Three or four decades ago, it was a given that the arching opening string phrase of the third-movement Adagio (the last movement given the Symphony is unfinished) deliberately referenced the opening of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde – I recall Jonathan Harvey describing the Adagio as drenched in Tristan but put to Parsifalian ends. The similarity doesn't seem to be drawn these days, but I like to think that Haitink had it in mind in the sense of timelessness he evokes. A feeling of dread, of a trial that must be endured, tugs at the inexorable, effortful climb to the apocalyptic and black climax, and is properly overwhelming. No less impressive is the repose of the coda, as much out of exhaustion as of transformation. The more I listen to this wonderful, spaciously recorded performance, the more I am getting from it.