Symphony No.9 in D minor [with Performing Version of the Finale by Nors S. Josephson]
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
John Gibbons

Recorded 2-5 April 2014 in Symphonic Hall, Musikhuset Aarhus, Denmark
Duration: 81 minutes
Reviewed: August 2015

This Nors S. Josephson-completed edition of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony dates from 1992 and has been performed occasionally in Germany and on one occasion in Arkansas. It was given its English premiere in 2012 with John Gibbons conducting the Ealing Symphony Orchestra.

Josephson completion (recorded for the first time) is less well-known than several others but it merits comparison with them. In his booklet note Josephson pays tribute to Alfred Orel for his 1934 publication of manuscripts – since then there have been a number of attempts at reconstructing the finale, commencing in 1969 with Ernst Märzendorfer who conducted the first performance in November of that year. Recordings can also be found of William Carragan’s completion, finished in 1983, which he has revised several times, and also available are versions by Sébastien Letocart and Nicolas Couton and there is an intriguing (and more controversial) version by Peter Jan Marthé.

My basis of recorded comparison for the Josephson version was the best known of the revisions: made by Samale, Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca (SPCM). They commenced work in the early 1980s. Their 1996 revision can be heard on Naxos conducted by Johannes Wildner and their 2011 score was recorded for EMI under Sir Simon Rattle. Danacord’s release represents a very interesting comparison.

The opening is impressive. The Aarhus strings are precise in the disturbing, immensely quiet tremolando, the horns then enter firmly but as if from a distance; this is very effective and I am impressed by the way in which the initial climax is built without resort to tightening of speed (uncharacteristically Rattle is free with the tempo here). John Gibbons is not as dramatic as Rattle in this movement but the consistency of his conception is noteworthy, moving surely from one episode to another. There is a full-bodied feeling to the tutti passages, the balance is carefully preserved and the tempo flows. The movement is purposeful and dramatic moments make their point without any underlining. The extraordinary final climax is perhaps not as overwhelming as some conductors make it, but the detail among this maelstrom of sound remains very clear – it is refreshing to find a recording in which the brass do not overwhelm the strings.

String detail is also a feature of the Scherzo with precision in pizzicato passages. Steadiness is the essence of Gibbons’s view. This is not a reading to bowl the listener over with its power – go to Horenstein or Wand for that – but the monumental severity of the music is there and the unrelenting swiftness of the Trio is full of quiet excitement; it is refreshing that Gibbons does not slow for the lyrical moments.

In the Adagio, Gibbons is nearer to Wildner’s cool yet expressive approach than to Rattle’s, where the textures are full and rich – the Aarhus musicians providing a warm quality and remaining admirably clear despite the weight of the surrounding instruments at climactic moments. Gibbons is not afraid to permit a suggestion of portamento: that first theme really responds to it. Gibbons interprets this slow movement (so often the end of the Symphony as Bruckner left it) calmly and the many climaxes are built firmly – perhaps we might expect greater tension but no expressive liberties are taken and the gentleness into the quiet ending suits the onset of the Finale, the listener feels that there is more to come.

As with Rattle there is the advantage that the Symphony is on a single CD (Wildner takes two). Experts differ on just how many bars of the Finale Bruckner completed. Approximately the first third is fully scored although, because the composer left several revisions, his ultimate intentions need to be carefully assessed. After that it gets more difficult since the music is only in short score but a reasonable amount of scoring is noted although there is some doubt as to the correct order of the ideas.

Some have suggested there is missing music in one area, but even if so it is surrounded by relevant material that can legitimately be filled-in by repetition of existing melodies. As things progress the task of reconstruction is more demanding yet not insoluble but eventually the coda is reached and unfortunately Bruckner did not write one.

For the first third of the Finale Josephson agrees closely with SPCM, with one noticeable difference: this is the twice-stated chorale-like theme heard after approximately five minutes. Gibbons plays it gently at mezzo-forte whereas Rattle and Wildner provide a full-blooded fortissimo.

This brings me to a problem. There is a falling phrase consisting of four pairs of notes, lower on each utterance. It first appears at 1’30”. It is not unacceptable in this forceful atmosphere but a minute later it is stated quietly and very repetitively and sounds thematically weak. It then gradually builds up to a climax and it is only abandoned at the arrival of the chorale. I do not think that this is worthy of Bruckner and the constant restatement of it is wearisome. The prosaic quiet version appears again at 11’50” and is incorporated further into other ideas which follow.

Trying to put aside my discomfort with this obsessive phrase and realising that Bruckner may finally have approved of it since it appears in the fully completed part of the manuscripts, I listened again to SPCM/Rattle who employ more interesting fragments than does Josephson, in particular a more expanded version of a fugue; Josephson uses a smaller portion.

I feel that the way the coda is constructed will evoke the greatest interest. Some revisionists have used snatches of others of Bruckner’s works. SPCM employ brief references to earlier in the Symphony including a rhythm based on the Scherzo and a trumpet theme from the Adagio. They also incorporate a subject from Bruckner’s Te Deum. Josephson takes a simpler approach and commences the conclusion with some of the final climax from the first movement (Bruckner sometimes re-introduced material into finales) and then the music fades thoughtfully away before moving on to a series of confirmatory concluding chords which include flaring trumpets and horns. Josephson only adds an extended if insistent affirmation with nothing composed by himself. It is an ending which is perhaps foreseeable but although it is not an inspired solution it represents a comfortably logical ending.

Previously I was concerned about the number of tempo changes in the Finale but I am pleased that Gibbons makes less of them than does Rattle. In my review of the Berlin recording I wrote that I would “listen yet again in the context of the entire symphony to see if I can find a logic that so far escapes me.” A correspondent wrote: “Antony Hodgson tries to find some logic in this four movement version of Bruckner Ninth, but I don't think he will because there isn't any.”

There is, however, something a little more convincing in the Josephson version, or maybe it is Gibbons’s straightforward conducting that makes the shape seems a bit clearer. Josephson has done admirable work but sadly the material left by Bruckner does not have the ring of greatness about it; nevertheless Brucknerians will do well to investigate this well-recorded and well-performed version.


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