Bruckner 9 & Te Deum – LSO/MTT (2 November)

Symphony No.9 in D minor
Te Deum

Turid Karlsen (soprano)
Natascha Petrinsky (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
Peter Rose (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Not long ago, a complete – four-movement – Bruckner Nine seemed unlikely. Whatever its musical merits, the torso of the finale was simply too fragmentary – not to mention coda-less – to warrant completion. Performing editions by William Carragan and that spearheaded by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs (the latter receiving its UK premiere three years ago at the hands of controversial Brucknerian Robert Bachmann), while yet to catch on in the concert hall, have at least questioned the thinking that pairs Bruckner Nine with Schubert Eight as a diptych of ’inevitable unfinisheds’ – though when the result is that conducted by the late Günter Wand at the 2001 Proms, criticism is bound to be relative.

The ailing Bruckner himself realised the problem when he suggested his Te Deum be used as a finale to the Ninth should he not live to complete it. While several conductors, not least Bernard Haitink, have put the earlier work as a first half ’entrée’ to the symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas may well be the first to perform the two as a single, four-movement entity with no interval. As if to underline the point, Tilson Thomas will be playing that other ’Choral Ninth’ with the LSO on 8 November!

But does it work in performance? Not really. And while Tilson Thomas took care to give the three completed movements of the symphony an overall sense of anticipation, a provisional feeling pervaded the actual interpretation. The commanding opening paragraph of the first movement had little breadth or gravitas, and though the second and third themes (contrary to received opinion, this is the only Bruckner symphony where a third theme is brought into play as opposed to an extended codetta) were not without eloquence, there was little sense of long-term control over the material. The development felt tetchy, Tilson Thomas stop-starting towards and away from the movement’s searing climax as to fatally undermine momentum, while the coda felt brazen rather than implacable.

Although not lacking force, the Scherzo proceeded at fractionally too quick a tempo, allowing for insufficient articulation of the ostinato rhythms whose mechanistic fury projects the music a generation into the future. It also meant the Trio had to go faster still, robbing it of that spectral charm equally new to Bruckner. There were fine things in the Adagio: the fire-and-ice harmonies of the opening pages, the careful moulding of the main melodic ideas, and the measured but purposeful build-up to the anguished climax of the work as it stands. Yet the climax itself failed to pulverise the senses – a question of not balancing the complex chord formation so that the dissonance seems to draw in the whole orchestra – while the movement as a whole stirred the senses but not the soul.

The coda, poised between finality and inconclusively, was not unimpressive. How interesting too that it was proceeded by an absence of applause (even as the soloists entered): the audience perceiving the follow-through of the performance. Moreover, the account of the Te Deum was a persuasive one: incisive rather than magisterial, with appreciation of the uniformity of Bruckner’s approach to the text, fine solo singing – Turid Karlsen and Anthony Dean Griffey in particular – and an impressively unanimous choral contribution from the London Symphony Chorus. Yet the overall impression was of an avoidance of the issues – temporal and aesthetic, as well as the tonal one of ending a D minor symphony in C major.

Put another way, the three completed movements of the Ninth Symphony raise questions about symphonic continuity that the all-round stability of the Te Deum can’t answer. Maybe it will take the rediscovery of those autograph pages relating to the finale’s coda, and a little more focussing on musical as opposed to psychological issues from conductors, before the work can be judged an overall, purely orchestral entity. For now, Tilson Thomas’s experiment, in as much as it made listeners reflect on the nature of the work as it has generally been understood, was one worth making.

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