on 4 September 2007
There has arguably been no finer interpreter of Bruckner's 9th Symphony over the last few decades than Günter Wand, and a number of his performances have been issued on CD. This particular version was recorded live in September 1998 and collectors may well be tempted by the fact that the orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic, with whom Wand worked with fairly regularly in the last decade of his life.
The performance of the 9th Symphony in this 1998 recording is warm, powerful and profound. The 86 year old Wand secures superb playing from all departments of the orchestra, and the recording quality is excellent.
However, there are at least three performances of Bruckner's 9th which I think are even finer. First and foremost among these is Wand's performance with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, dating from 1979. It is a dramatic, powerful reading and an emotionally engulfing experience. Currently only available as part of a collected edition of the nine Bruckner symphonies, the quality of the 1979 performance almost justifies the purchase of the whole set.
Another outstanding version is Carlo Maria Giulini's 1998 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. It is an immensely spacious, intense and spiritual performance. I've not heard a more moving version of the coda of the Adagio than the one on this recording.
Finally, there is Daniel Barenboim's 1991 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, which finds a satisfying balance between the emotional power of the Cologne Wand performance and the spirituality of the Giulini. Like Wand's Cologne recording, it is currently only available as part of a nine disc set. However, Barenboim's set also has outstanding performances of symphonies 5 and 7 and is altogether very recommendable.
Although Wand's Berlin performance is impressive, ultimately I do find the other three versions more satisfying.
I saw Wand conduct this work when he was 89 and the ovation he received upon entering the hall would please most at the end of the concert. The BPO live recordings of Symphonies 8 and 9 are required listening and those who have not yet acquired the Ninth can now by it at under a tenner. The rendition is utterly sublime, beautifully captured at Philharmonie in the late 1990s. It is more expressive than Barenboim's admired BPO recording, with Wand pacing the outer movements with greater success (though Barenboim's scherzo is incomparable). Those already in possession of the Karajan or Haitink would do well to get this one too.
Certain conductors attract cult-like followings - Furtwängler, Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein and, certainly, Günther Wand, 1912-2002. Wand’s repertoire was rather narrower than these earlier musicians and his reputation is based mainly on his performances and recordings of the works of Anton Bruckner whose music all but dominated his repertoire towards the end of his life.
Also unlike these other conductors, the majority of Wand’s performances were with a Radio Orchestra, that of North German Radio, NDR, with many of these being recorded live. Wand’s immutable musical credo was fidelity to the composer’s score.
Like Monet, he was unafraid of repetition since a new performance of a familiar work would never be as before, it would always capture the impression of the time and circumstances of its creation. He recorded the Bruckner symphonies many times and, whilst to the uninitiated ear, there seem little differences between them these recordings can stimulate passionate argument.
Here the conductor plays the original version of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, left unfinished at his death, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; the performance was recorded at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in September, 1998. Whilst this is obviously a much larger and more experienced group of players than the NDR Orchestra, it can sometimes overwhelm, as when controlled by Karajan, when the sheen and shimmer of its musical sound takes centre stage. Whilst this happens only briefly here one sometimes longs for a rough edge or two to bring us back to reality.
Wand reveals Bruckner’s thoughts in a coherent and integrated fashion, in which everything builds up to the inevitability of the final pages of the score. More than any other conductor, he understands Bruckner’s complex and reticent character and conveys this through his interpretation. In this symphony, Wand’s journey, which lasts 61’52, is without any semblance of doubt. Although they are many, the composer’s characteristic dramatic climaxes and subsequent returns to pizzicato playing never appear overwrought or distorted. The Scherzo is the one movement where the opulence of the orchestra sounds distractingly excessive but the composer’s references to his earlier works are fully revealed. The Adagio is marginally faster than in Wand’s NDR versions but this does not detract from the final exhalations of life that are beyond description.
The recording is very good and the audience is not intrusive; very sensibly the final applause has been cut. Generally, I have mixed feelings about this but here, with the music of the Adagio ending with a serene ‘Farewell to Life’, it would be invasive; the greatest compliment to composer and performers being to continue the peace and tranquility.
The booklet contains a 2-page summary of the composition and key musical features of the symphony as well as of Wand’s recording career by Richard Freed. As he explains, but for Bruckner’s habit, the outcome of chronic self-doubt, of constantly revising works he had completed, the Ninth Symphony, begun in 1887 but then left until 1891, would have been completed. However, the sketches show that Bruckner was planning a final giant fugue that would undoubtedly have led to a very different work. 5* - but the NDR version is even better!
on 16 February 2013
I should begin by stating that I'm not crazy about classical music, although I do enjoy some of it. I've never been to an orchestral concert and I wouldn't be able to hold my own, or anything like it, in those conversations classical music devotees seem to enjoy about which "rendition" of any particular masterwork is best. I won't say all renditions of all compositions sound the same to me; they don't. The fact is, I only know enough classical music to recognise most of the pieces in my library by the one rendition I happen to possess. I'm therefore writing this review not for people who haven't heard Bruckner's 9th before and want to know what a relatively ignorant listener made of it.
One thing I do know about classical music is that you've got to give it your full attention. Until you're fully cognisant with a particular piece, it's no use putting it on as background music while you wash the dishes. For this reason, for over a fortnight, I ensured that whenever I put a piece of music on to listen to, it was Bruckner's 9th. Since I have no shame at all, I'll admit I bought it because the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Companion to Classical Music says it has it has "a quality of isolation and intense spirituality that it not present in Bruckner's other works" (p209). Groovy.
The first thing I'll say is that any modern listener needs to undergo a certain amount of deculturalisation in order to enjoy it. The bombastic Wagnerian motifs reminded me a little of Darth Vader's theme in Star Wars, or Indiana Jones. I accept that's not fair to Bruckner, and it doesn't necessarily mean he's dated. It just means that I've become so familiar with the derivatives that they spoiled my enjoyment of the original for a while. It took me a fair bit of listening to get past this.
At the beginning of my Bruckner fortnight, I couldn't understand what the DK book was talking about. The ninth seemed a fairly dull, conventional symphony, nothing to write home about. The Darth Vader-y bits got in the way, but it wasn't only that. There seemed to be one especially annoying motif in the second movement where the orchestra plays the same note in a kind of syncopated (probably the wrong word) beat. I found myself grinding my teeth whenever this came on.
After two weeks, though, I did begin to enjoy it. It still doesn't strike me as anything to rave about, and I can't say there's much of it that particularly sticks in my memory, but I will keep listening to it. I am glad I bought it. And it makes just about all currently popular music (even the "coolest") sound frivolous. It was well worth the money I paid for it.