04 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Anton Bruckner – SYMPHONY NO. 9 (London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink; LSO Live LSO0746)

Anton Bruckner - SYMPHONY NO. 9 (LSO Live LSO0746)

ANTON BRUCKNER (1824 – 1896): Symphony No. 9 in D minor, WAB 109 (edition Nowak, 1951)—London Symphony Orchestra; Bernard Haitink [Recorded ‘live’ at the Barbican, London, on 17 and 21 February 2013; LSO Live LSO0746; 1 SACD, 67:10; Available from LSO, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is, like the Venus de Milo, one of the most exquisite torsos in Western Art; and, like Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, a work of tantalizing mysteries, missed opportunities, and undeniable proof of its creator’s genius that is a fulfilling artistic experience even in the form in which it was handed down to the ages. The February 2013 performances by the London Symphony Orchestra recorded by the ensemble’s house label wisely employed the 1951 Nowak edition of Bruckner’s score, which is essentially a substantial correction of an earlier reworking of the Symphony. Thus, rather than appending another composer’s completion of Bruckner’s intended fourth movement, conceived as a monumental homage to Beethoven on the scale of the finale of that composer’s Ninth Symphony, energy was expended in these performances on thoughtful execution of the three existing movements. One of the most appreciable achievements of this recording is the sound: indeed, the scores of labels that record live performances for commercial release should analyze the accomplishments of LSO Live’s engineers. Noises inevitably occur in live performances: people cough, papers rustle, chairs creak, and—the bane of the modern age—phones ring. What is not inevitable is the complete avoidance of any of these obtrusive contributions to the music-making, but LSO Live’s engineers managed to preserve a rich, natural hall acoustic whilst also eliminating distracting bangs and clangs. The splendid sonic ambience of the recording enables the listener to focus on hearing LSO’s performance of Bruckner’s challenging score with the same attention with which the instrumentalists played it, and this combination of committed musicianship and superb sound lays the foundation for a profound realization of this powerhouse Symphony.

The engagement of Bernard Haitink to conduct the performances that yielded this recording was an inspired choice. The Dutch conductor has a long history with Bruckner’s Symphonies, having recorded them with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for the Philips label. Fine as his 1981 account of the Ninth Symphony [which also utilized the 1951 Nowak edition] with the RCO is, his leadership of this performance is even more memorable. Accustomed to Maestro Haitink’s conducting style, the London Symphony players respond to his pacing of Bruckner’s music with vivacity and affection. Comparisons of Maestro Haitink’s 1981 and 2013 tempi reveal that his pacing of the score has changed little in the intervening years, with only a very slight broadening of approach being noticeable in the work as a whole. Not unexpectedly, Maestro Haitink devotes great care to the blending of orchestral timbres, and a consistent achievement of the playing in this performance is the way in which the instrumentalists approach the brobdignagian score as though it were conceived as chamber music, pursuing a thoughtful delineation of Bruckner’s often intimate combinations of instruments without stinting on tonal might in the passages that require it. Nothing ever seems massive merely for the sake of cheap effects, and the almost perfect intonation from all sections of the orchestra suggests both adequate and well-used rehearsal time.

It is the Symphony’s second movement—Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft – Trio: Schnell – Scherzo—that seems the most obviously problematic for a conductor, but Maestro Haitink maintains an excellent grasp on the complex rhythms and fluctuations in tempo. In a score that has as its principal aim a summing up of its dying composer’s career, it is in the Scherzo that Bruckner most audibly turned his eyes—and ears—to the music of the future. The piquant dissonances have invited comparisons with the music of a dozen different 20th-Century composers, but the tonal landscape remains one that only Bruckner could have cultivated. The conundrum of Bruckner is that he was, in turns, as firmly adherent to traditional structures as Brahms and as stylistically unconventional as any of the ‘pupils’ of the Second Viennese School, perhaps reflecting his ambiguous personality. The most outrageous passages of the Scherzo are more harmonically adventurous than anything in the symphonies of Mahler, but Maestro Haitink and the LSO ensure that the harshest tones remain rewardingly musical. The Trio, with its tacit nods to Händel, is played with severity that does not preclude sly hints of joy. Maestro Haitink handles the second statement of the Scherzo almost like a da capo aria, preserving the overall mood of the first statement but highlighting nuances of orchestration in different, insightful ways. The near-sadistic violence of the music is inescapable, but the logic of its construction is made more immediately evident by the emphasis in this performance on the competing passages of relative calm.

The outer movements—the first marked ‘Feierlich, misterioso’ and the third ‘Adagio: Langsam, feierlich’—are two of Bruckner’s greatest achievements in the symphonic vein. The opening movement pushes traditional sonata form to the edge of a precipice but pulls it back just before it plunges into the abyss. Here, too, there are clashes between old and new, with the distant worlds of Beethoven and Schumann hurtling headlong into the emerging galaxy of late Mahler, Berg, and Schoenberg. Maestro Haitink’s conducting takes the hurdles raised by the convergent styles in stride, the unity of his concept of the movement as a whole producing a coherence that further honors the boldness of Bruckner’s invention. The final movement also unfolds compellingly under Maestro Haitink’s leadership, its recapitulation of the best aspects of the composer’s artistry coming to fruition in the Orchestra’s robust handling of the movement’s carefully-blended melodic strands. Tonally, this is perhaps the most progressive music that Bruckner composed, and Maestro Haitink and the LSO delve deeply into the dramatic impetus of the idiosyncratic thematic development. Critically, explosions of volume and orchestral color do not inhibit the exposition of subtler qualities. On the whole, this is not subtle music, but the singular power of Maestro Haitink’s reading is in the minute details that emerge from the glorious cacophony.

Bruckner’s incomplete Ninth Symphony is unquestionably one of the greatest masterpieces in the symphonic canon, but the absence of the composer’s intended fourth movement does not render the Symphony an incomplete experience. Only an aimless performance can do that, but the performances given by the London Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Haitink in February 2013 had clear goals—to discard preconceptions and play this enigmatic score with no agenda except achieving the best possible musical quality—and achieved them without compromise or didacticism. In the Ninth Symphony, Bruckner took leave of the world, not without regret but also not without wry humor. This is a performance that neither wallows nor whimpers, but it is a recording that every admirer of Bruckner and world-class orchestral playing should hear.