Vier letzte Lieder
Symphony No.9 in D minor [Edition by Leopold Nowak, published 1951]
Eva-Maria Westbroek (soprano)
Christoph von Dohnányi
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 5 June, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Which is just what Bruckner was doing when he was struggling to complete his visionary Ninth Symphony, the Grim Reaper ensuring that it was not to be, the sketches and folios for the finale left to a later generation to complete (and best experienced in Simon Rattle’s EMI recording, review-link below). Dohnányi stayed with the three-movement version, one that works very well, and not just because we are used to it, especially when there is a nice symmetry to the three movements, here 25 minutes each for the outer ones, with 10 for the scherzo, adding to a wholesome hour. Distant spires and a desolate landscape were suggested at the very opening to begin a reading that embraced rigour and flexibility, Dohnányi unerringly balancing turns of phrase with symphonic logic, solemnity with sear, forward-looking musical thinking with nostalgic illustration while all along teasing out much instrumentation that is often lost. Tempos had an absorbing sense of rightness, climaxes were granitic (although trumpets and trombones could be too loud – a shame that the dreaded risers have been returned to: the RFH sounds much better without them and balances are more just). After this coherent yet supple first movement, the scherzo was driven with jagged force contrasted with graceful dance, although the choreography allowed for ghouls. The trio – macabre Mendelssohn – was nifty in pace and agile in playing, taking on a will-o’-the-wisp character. As for the third (last) movement, an Adagio, once again Dohnányi knew just where it was going, via glory to the Lord, trepidation, a noble “farewell to life” melody, transfigured light (string-writing that anticipates Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia) and a pained climax leaving in its wake a harmonic and spiritual wasteland. What next? Here silence and then appreciative applause for an inimitable and enthralling performance.