Bruckner’s Ninth – Complete

Symphony No. 9 (Complete)

Russian National Orchestra conducted by Robert Bachmann

Reviewed by: Duncan Hadfield

Reviewed: 6 November, 2000
Venue: Moscow Conservatoire

Having never visited Moscow before, it was certainly both an intriguing and rewarding experience to find myself resident in the Russian capital for a few days on a drizzly weekend in early November, a stone’s throw away from Red Square, the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb.

A slightly further stone’s throw away is another landmark of significant historical and cultural interest – especially for the music fan – the Moscow Conservatoire with its auditorium of the Great Hall replete with backdrop of an impressive organ and side-walls adorned with portraits of twelve great composers. Sadly not amongst the ’disciples’ selected for representation is the titanic figure of the Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner; one senses that, even now more than a century after his death, Bruckner still remains something of an unknown quantity in Moscow. All the better a springboard then to present to a large and expectant audience the Russian premiere of a completed Ninth Symphony.

To readers already familiar (and also to those who are not conversant) with the background and pro- and contra-arguments for a completion of the mighty Ninth, its final movement left unfinished by the ailing Bruckner, this is not the place to further the debate. Suffice to say that even in writing about the project (let alone the accomplished scholarship and musicianship involved in bringing it to fruition), one of the quartet of the last movement’s editors – Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs – has made out a more than eloquent case for the validity of the undertaking, the bare gist of which asserts that Bruckner certainly intended his Symphony to possess the customary four movements; moreover, almost a surfeit of sufficient material has survived to make a creditable performing version possible. And in my view, very laudable the results are too: the almost 30-minute Finale unfolding in dramatic and seamless fashion, its building blocks impressively hewn and set in place, before climaxing in a magnificent and shattering coda. Remember Bruckner dedicated his opus summum to none other than the ’Dear Lord’ himself. Surely something very akin to the monumental lines of this impressive completion is how we should consider him departing the world – his life’s work well done – as opposed to the fading strains of the Adagio in the Symphony’s usual three-movement torso.

Yet mention of those three movements entails another point worth making about this Russian premiere, for even they were in a sense being played anew in Cohrs’s scholarly new version of the Symphony which forms part of what will surely become a definitive Bruckner edition for the 21st-century.

A tireless advocate of Bruckner is the Swiss conductor Robert Bachmann – many British Brucknerians will be familiar with the conductor’s powerful readings of the composer’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, which he has delivered at London’s Barbican Centre with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Yet unquestionably Bachmann also possesses a pioneering streak to go in tandem with his ever-enquiring mindset. In London last year (March) he enterprisingly gave listeners a very rare opportunity to experience the first (1887) version of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony; and, again with the Royal Philharmonic, two months later he splendidly delivered the British Premiere of the completed Ninth.

Although I was probably the only audience member present at both London and Moscow Ninths, I will not attempt to compare and contrast the RPO with the RNO. Of the Moscow performance alone then: in his last symphonic testament, the Symphony No.9 in D minor, Bruckner’s range of expression seems to widen even further, with the visionary quality of his mature style becoming even more intensified. The first 96 bars of the opening movement alone contain no fewer than eight principal ideas. The form of the movement also seems to show a pattern of ’Statement, Counter-statement and Coda’ which is totally divorced from sonata form. From the very first tremolo strains, anticipatorily intoned, Bachmann and the Russian National Orchestra seemed up to the task, lusciously easing into the solemn and broad scope of the initial section. The main theme’s fortissimo unison was breathtakingly introduced, as was the jolting transition to the next phrase, developed over the pedal-point of D. Motifs and more motifs appeared, all clearly signalled, as the vast movement unfolded, gaining a grandiose and almost superhuman weight. The climax of the working-out section and the beginning of the recapitulation coincided in a climax of magnificent force. In the final summatory coda too Bachmann’s breadth of design was equally evident as he steered trombones and woodwinds through the basic theme and drew the huge design to a consummate close.

Bruckner marks the Scherzo, Mosso vivace, and it consists of a vigorous, almost vehement whirlwind of music. Again Bachmann and his orchestra alighted on the correct ambience immediately: tantalisingly etched was the main theme, so peculiar in its harmonic aspect. The subsidiary theme has something of a dance character though here it took the form of a turbulent ’danse macabre’. Bruckner’s contrasting Trio, departing from the customary slower tempo, maintained the accruing momentum spectacularly, almost with a bravura French brilliance, and the even more strongly reiterated Scherzo material brought the movement to a thrilling apotheosis.

A massive interposition between sonata and rondo form, the ensuing Adagio is lavishly set out. Again Bachmann set the scene admirably, hauntingly capturing the striking effect of the ascending interval of a ninth at the opening, where the violins seemed to soar towards the heavens. The first phrase then appeared splendidly glowing on the horns, with the long melody unfolding gradually against the burnished tones of the Wagner tubas. A sense of ethereal stasis almost takes over, but although such an ambience was evocatively suggested here, neither Bachmann nor the orchestra allowed the ebb and flow of the music ever to become bogged down. The following jaunty string melody was gracefully played, with woodwinds answering in light colours. By the time of the huge recapitulation, the movement had certainly attained its own lavish and exquisitely drawn character. Again, here, several long rests threaten to destroy the cohesion but they were consummately and dramatically negotiated before the Adagio came to a translucent end amongst a glow of flickering violin figures and dark-toned tubas.

Bruckner’s sketches demonstrate that the mighty Finale was planned on a particularly epic scale – more so than that of the Eighth Symphony or the Fifth’s gigantic structure of exposition, development, fugue and second-subject recapitulation.

Once again Bachmann admirably painted the scene with an opening nervous and mysterious, and fascinatingly ambivalent and proto-modern in its harmonies. Later on the more assertive chorale theme was posited on a grand scale, becoming tightly fused with the motif Bruckner takes from his Te Deum. Although the contents of this ’new’ movement, as well as its complex argument, constructed from just a handful of simple threads, was unfamiliar to the Russian National Orchestra, it coped manfully with playing of great skill and energy, especially after more than an hour on the platform already. A lucid, meticulously prepared and finely executed performance then, commandingly supervised by Robert Bachmann both its in overall shaping and its acute attention to detail. Moreover the dedication, commitment and professionalism of the Russian National Orchestra was a joy to behold from first bar to last. Its ensemble is tight and cogent, its sound distinctive, sonorous and homogenous. There were magnificent contributions from all sections: silken strings, perky and mellifluous woodwind, resplendent brass; and whilst it would be invidious to single anyone out for special treatment, the quartet of Wagner tubas played as if they knew their rare instruments inside out and the hard-worked timpanist rose to his arduous task with heroic zeal.

Bachmann had memorised and cogitated over this relatively alien territory with his customary fastidiousness – as any number of finer points demonstrated – woven against the meticulous exposition with culminatory and argumentative force. The last great coda arrived as a blaze of orchestral colour, force and glory.

As a classical prelude to such splendour we heard Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C, K246 conducted by versatile Bruckner scholar Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs with Alexander Ghindin providing an illuminating and sparkling account of the solo piano part. Employing period-performing practice and a reduced body of strings, Cohrs elicited a refined and elegant account with Ghindin on top form. Especially rewarding was Cohrs’s and Ghindin’s incisiveness for there was nothing unnecessarily floral or sentimental about this classically transparent and forthright reading.

As I left the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, the radiance of Bruckner’s final apocalyptic vision still resonating in my ears, I felt I had been present at a marvellous, ground-breaking evening of music-making.

As a postscript to Duncan’s article, The Classical Source’s Music Editor, Colin Anderson, makes a response. Read it here

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