Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle at Carnegie Hall – 2: Bruckner 9 with finale

Symphony No.9 in D minor [1887-1896; new critical edition, 2000, with performing version of the finale by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca, 1983-2011; US premiere]

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 24 February, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMISince the premiere of the first three movements of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in 1903, it has been the generally accepted wisdom that the work is complete in that form. The Adagio adequately serves as a conclusion, and Bruckner left very little material for the finale. And so the Ninth was performed as a three-movement symphony for more than eighty years. More to the point, we know that Bruckner intended the finale to be the Ninth’s pinnacle and summation, and there is no evidence that he either considered or accepted the three movements as a complete symphony. He suggested that his Te Deum could be played instead. While working on the finale, colleagues diverted Bruckner’s attentions to revising earlier symphonies, and then illness so sapped his strength that he hadn’t sufficient energy to complete it. However, Bruckner had written the entire movement in a “definitive full score”, one-third of which is fully orchestrated, and he left 440 manuscript pages from which most of what was left undone could be realized. In light of these facts, the work virtually cried out for completion. Indeed, efforts at accomplishing this task had been undertaken in the early 1980s.

According to one of the editors of the version of the finale performed at this concert, John Phillips, an assistant to Leopold Nowak the editor of the first three movements in the Critical Edition, Bruckner sought to convey “awe and fear, retrospection and leave-taking, religious ecstasy, abasement, judgment and salvation” in what he knew would be his last symphony. Phillips collaborated with Nicola H. Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca, later joined by Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs, a Bruckner specialist, in fashioning the substantial and diverse materials into a workable whole. The first edition of this performing version was completed in 1991, later revised in 1995. Both versions have been recorded, and a recording by Simon Rattle and the Berliners of the 2011 edition will appear on EMI in May of this year.

Samale, Mazzuca, Phillips and Cohrs are not the only ones to generate a performing version of the finale. As early as 1985, William Carragan, a physics professor in upstate New York and a trained musician with a fixation on Bruckner, had already completed one, which he revised several times. Three recordings of Carragan’s finale have been issued; the first on Chandos also contains the original sketches as assembled by Carragan.

Anton BrucknerBruckner, himself a devout Catholic, conceived the Ninth as his “Homage to Divine majesty”. The finale’s structure is based upon sonata form into which he integrated a fugue and brass chorale and also a terminating development of motifs appearing in earlier movements. The principal theme plays upon the stentorian dotted rhythms that predominate in the opening movement. Frankly, it seems too threadbare to serve as a leading function, although it has a slightly joyful character that Bruckner may have intended to convey a sense of relief in achieving redemption from the cataclysmic eruptions in the first movement, the brutality of the scherzo and the soul-searching strains of the Adagio. The succeeding “song theme” is sourced in the first subject, but given a rather barren, negative character and contains an allusion to the Easter hymn ‘Christ ist erstanden’. A resplendent transformation of the “farewell to life” melody from the Adagio constitutes the third subject, set ablaze by intense string figuration. Motivic figures and thematic material from the opening and Adagio movements appear like “recollections of things past”. Music from the Te Deum provides the crowning glory of the movement.

The edition heard at this concert has all the hallmarks of Bruckner’s style, the building-block construction that contrasts monumental outbursts with moments of mysterious stillness to naïve lyricism that becomes increasingly fervent. In some respects, the completed finale is a fitting conclusion to the symphony, if not its pinnacle. There are moments where the music just stops in its tracks, as if indicating a bare space that Bruckner might have filled in. But such instances also occur in symphonies that he completed.

The performance had one unquestionable advantage: the magnificent Berliner Philharmoniker. Strings played with incredible intensity and fervor; woodwinds with resplendent beauty; and brass with awesome power and brilliant tonal sheen. Simon Rattle shaped the performance masterfully without engaging untoward mannerisms. He heightened the already extreme contrast between overpowering explosions and passages of hushed mystery, particularly in the outer movements, the former played at ear-splitting dynamic levels, the latter sounding like a barely audible whisper. Rattle’s keen sense of balance enabled inner voices to be heard without sounding overbearing. Tempos were well conceived, even if not always consistently applied. The brutal force of the scherzo’s thumping principal subject was intensified by adding extra emphasis to the upbeat of each three-bar segment. By the Adagio I sensed some exhaustion in the string-players, but they managed to play through it.

One concern lingered in my mind: the virtual absence of spirituality, the principal nature of this great work. Certainly monumental power, disquieting misterioso sections, and passionate lyricism came through. But they did not generate the very special feelings of humility and prayer-like reverence that Bruckner intended to express, so vital to the performance of this symphony (with or without the finale).

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