Sir Simon Rattle conducts Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with Performing Version of the Finale [Berliner Philharmoniker; EMI]

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9 in D minor [with Performing Version of the Finale by Samale / Phillips / Cohrs / Mazzuca (1983-2012): Conclusive Revised Edition 2012]

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Recorded 7-9 February 2012 in Philharmonie, Berlin

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: May 2012
CD No: EMI 9 52969 2
Duration: 82 minutes



Simon Rattle has been conducting Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in its unfinished three-movement state for a number of years. I wonder if his reading has been influenced by adding the reconstructed finale.

The opening passages give a clue to the overall approach. Suitably mysterious at the start, Rattle builds dramatically to the first immense climax and, perhaps surprisingly for a conductor whose style usually incorporates regularity of pulse, the crescendo is accompanied by an increase of tempo. This is certainly exciting but the sense of inevitability engendered by firm, unhurried propulsion in the interpretations of such conductors as Günter Wand or Georg Tintner is not conveyed so strongly. With Rattle the next subject settles to a slower tempo, great beauty is achieved, but not momentum.

This then is the nature of the interpretation, carefully, even lovingly shaped, full of feeling but unexpectedly flexible. The reading is just on the fast side of average: a justifiable approach because with the finale waiting in the distance a more languorous view would not have been so suitable. I find the freedom of pulse a little surprising since it causes Bruckner’s various thematic ideas to lose continuity and the composer’s characteristic use of pauses also aids this division of sequences.

Another element to be considered is this is some of the most gorgeous sound that I have ever encountered in a Bruckner recording. It is immensely spacious with a superb acoustic, a large orchestra recorded with great skill – the tone of all instruments is full and colourful and the balancing is immaculate. All the usual dangers are avoided: brass does not overpower strings and woodwind interjections successfully emerge causing new themes to take on subtle differences of colour. Such splendid recorded quality ensures that the penultimate climax of the first movement is an exciting experience yet it does not have the terrifying quality of Furtwängler’s furious reading of this extraordinary music even though it can only be heard within the confines of a recording made during the World War Two.

The scherzo is another matter: here Rattle chooses to be firm; steady and menacing. I recall years ago a reviewer assessing the Vox recording by Jascha Horenstein and using the phrase “this is giant’s music.” This is how it is with Rattle and rarely have I heard recorded timpani so superbly balanced and so natural in timbre. It is very important to have their quiet passages clearly in focus and this is an exemplary aspect. The nervous intensity of the trio is underplayed in favour of its lyrical qualities – an approach that makes for a convincing juxtaposition of the two sections.

I much appreciate the 15-second pause before the start of the Adagio. Somehow Rattle’s considerate approach gives the impression of uncertainty but I do appreciate the way in which he gives the huge pauses their full value. The final, agonising, climax that then falls to a supremely sad close is a crucial moment. This applies to all performances regardless of whether they are ending the incomplete three-movement version or as here, prefacing the reconstructed finale. Many conductors fashion these last five minutes of the Adagio in such a way as to affirm its finality: Bruckner’s last words. This is where Wand was superbly convincing and deeply moving: he interpreted the work as completed. A further movement would have come as a shock. Rattle remains gracious and sensitive but he ensures that the onset of the finale does not come as a surprise.

For many years the general opinion has been that it is not possible to reconstruct the folios left by Bruckner who worked on the finale right up until his death. Now the group of musicologists who effected the completion have been working on this project for nearly thirty years and have followed the tendency of the composer himself by constantly revising. There is significant evidence of their earlier attempts in a Naxos recording of the four-movement version conducted by Johannes Wildner who gives an excellent (underrated) performance of the first three movements and for the finale uses the 1996 revision of the finale.

The task was enormous: the earlier parts of the score were the most complete although Bruckner’s revisions of the various sections demanded consideration as to his final intentions. The question is, how much did Bruckner complete? The answer varies and as time goes on claims as to the number of bars created by the composer tend to inflate. The booklet note goes into enormous detail about the amount of music completed, semi-completed, indicated and not written at all. This estimate is possible because we know that Bruckner was aiming at 653 bars. He fully scored approximately one-third, another third was incompletely scored, and half the remainder was in draft but fully composed, leaving the final hundred bars or so to be recreated. This seems a fair amount of material to work with and where the missing music is surrounded by other material it is filled in by repetition of existing melodies but the big obstacle is that Bruckner never composed the coda.

It is fascinating to compare the 1996 version with the “Conclusive Revised Edition” that Rattle has recorded. Not surprisingly the two are quite similar except for the coda. But before reaching this problematical area how does the movement fare as a continuation of the familiar previous three? Well certainly the opening with the softest of drum rolls is effective and it is followed by two forceful announcements of Brucknerian severity. I have a slight problem at 2’20” where an eight-note descending passage phrased as four falling pairs appears and is repeated again and again in one orchestration or another for two further minutes – its repetitive insistence is disturbing because it has no real melodic substance. Setting that aside the movement has much grandeur in the louder parts but its structure seems to be divided into blocks of different moods.

Julian Horton’s essay is very helpful and revealing yet I find it hard to accommodate his reference to the movement being in sonata form. More than one hearing makes it possible to understand which theme will continue from a previous one but this is far from classical symphonic construction, the mere allusion to a previously stated theme is not the accurate equivalent to a symphonic recapitulation and we only know that we are reaching the coda when we hear the familiar Bruckner method of music climbing from quietness toward the tonic key.

And how is the problem of the ‘missing’ coda solved? In 1996 the ascent led to a powerful tutti with flaring trumpets suddenly launching into the major key with repetition of affirmative phrases leading to a triumphant end, a good summing-up; not ground-breaking but nevertheless much as Bruckner might conventionally have been expected to finish. The new revision chooses to reconstruct rather than recompose: here the trumpets break off and the music again climbs from silence but this time Bruckner’s own themes are compressed to make an ending and they include borrowings from the symphony’s Adagio and from his Te Deum (which the composer said could be used as the symphony’s finale).

As yet I still do not grasp the structure of the movement and did Bruckner really write such a huge number of tempo changes? I must listen yet again in the context of the entire symphony to see if I can find a logic that so far escapes me.

The scholarship applied to rescuing Bruckner’s final musical utterances is immense, the tying together of the many manuscripts into performable form has taken years, but will the result be accepted as happened (more or less) with Deryck Cooke’s notable realisation of Mahler 10?

This is a fascinating release. The Berliner Philharmoniker is magnificent and the sound glows and is amazingly realistic. This is the very best of modern recording – and demands superior hi-fi equipment. Buy a bigger pair of speakers and listen to all 82 minutes.

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