Five Mystical Songs
Symphony No.9 (with a revised edition of the Finale by John A. Phillips after the reconstruction by Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, Phillips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs – world premiere)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 30 November, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Hard on the heels of a programme celebrating the LPO’s 90th-anniversary with music it helped premiere, this one began with another offering for the Vaughan Williams 150th-birthday year. The Five Mystical Songs may be the work of an agnostic but they encode an abiding spirituality as surely as the grander sonic cathedrals of Bruckner – plus a less Brucknerian capacity for sentiment and celebration. The baritone was Simon Keenlyside, holding up wonderfully well to the depredations of time. As ever in this music he sang with patent sincerity, melding words and notes less flexibly than Roderick Williams but with stronger, ‘outdoorsy’ tone more evenly projected, I last heard him sing these songs in their conventional guise at the 2009 Proms and he recorded them with piano (including the choral ‘Antiphon’ that concludes the sequence) as long ago as 1996. I’ve no problem with water-swigging informality but at one stage Keenlyside appeared to be looking round for the choir as well he might. The edition of the score employed on this occasion was new to me, dropping the SATB choral contribution altogether. According to Wikipedia, and Stainer and Bell, this is an authentic option. If so the ‘Antiphon’ sounded most peculiar but it was interesting to hear orchestral detail usually obscured beneath choral hooting.
A short first half then and something epic after the interval. That this concert of surprises would be offering a new take on a new take – the four-movement Bruckner Nine – will not have been clear to subscribers. The pugnacious Australian academic and pedagogue Dr John A. Phillips has been obsessed with Bruckner’s final masterpiece for most of his life and his involvement with the publication of a supposedly ideal performing version of its Finale does not mean that he has moved on. Nor should he, perhaps, for we are potentially closer to the composer’s intentions here than to Elgar’s in respect of his symphonic farewell. Always assuming you think it right to tinker at all – and there are of course arguments to be made on both sides. As Bernard Haitink put it, “You have to respect life but you also have to respect death.”
Suffice to say that Bruckner got further than Mahler did with his Tenth or Mozart with his Requiem and, whatever you make of the jerkiness and discontinuity elsewhere, the Finale’s third thematic group, a chorale suffused with the promise of resurrection, is plainly Bruckner at his most inspired. Phillips would argue that the rest is too, the music deliberately gnomic and hard to read because it represents the travails of the soul making its way from purgatory to deliverance. The structural shell of the movement has never been in doubt, surviving manuscript folios incorporating a wealth of material including fragmentary sketches as well as fully orchestrated sections. It is the absence of the coda which might seem to pose insuperable problems. Several of Bruckner’s seemingly inchoate Finales rely on the impact of the section we don’t currently have – the relevant papers were lost to nineteenth-century souvenir hunters – making completions reliant on earlier drafts and/or sheer intuition. The official “conclusive revised version by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca (1983-2012) never quite convinced at this crucial stage following the intervention of the first movement’s forbidding main theme. The revised solution, drawing on an additional surviving sketch, drives more naturally (naively?) to its inevitable goal, the return to God-given consonance. The final blaze, obviously foreshadowed in the aspiring element of the Adagio’s main theme, still follows on from a last-ditch reprise of that movement’s climactic dissonance, reminding us that no kind of resolution was possible in its original three-movement context, just a kind of provisional release. (In keeping with Catholic doctrine, the struggle for expiation has continued throughout the Finale i.e. even after death). Gone however is the cacophonous shoe-horning in of multi-layered thematic reminiscence q.v Sir Simon Rattle’s earlier performances and commercial recording. The coda, which feels longer than before, is in fact four bars shorter. Phillips says that only 87 bars of the Finale can be fairly construed as speculative in nature, requiring a more ‘forensic’ kind of restoration. He has tweaked the fugal section which for whatever reason came across more convincingly than in the past. How much we should attribute this to the editor and how much to the maestro I am unable to say.
Robin Ticciati is a conductor whose relatively fleet and mellifluous way with Bruckner, at odds with the maestoso tendencies of Haitink and his generation, perhaps makes it easier to contemplate this kind of rethink. Whether he is the right person to win wider public acceptance for these latest thoughts remains to be seen but repetition will make a difference to perception whoever is on the podium. Should we be ditching older notions of fidelity and propriety? Is our resistance merely intellectual sloth masquerading as humility as someone once said in another context? Time will tell. I’ve no idea whether any audience members were in tears at the end but there was an audible general exhalation before the applause broke in. This probably means something, ecstatic, spiritual uplift being in short supply in the modern world. The orchestra was large but not overwhelmingly so, the sonority founded upon eight double basses (one more than the LPO employed for Tippett’s A Child of Our Time). Ticciati got through the first three movements in under an hour – Haitink latterly took 67 minutes. And if the Scherzo substituted primitivist Stravinskian thrust for the dour, Teutonic tread of the veteran conductor, such sounds prepared us for the block-built Philip Glass-ish passages to come.
The LPO seemed on generally impressive form notwithstanding a few fluffs from the horns and some roughness elsewhere, no doubt exaggerated by the perennially unhelpful, un-ecclesiastical baldness of the acoustic. No mikes to record the event for posterity but we have not heard the last of what may or may not be best regarded as a score in purgatory.