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Forensic musicology, medium-rare with all the trimmings
on 22 May 2012
Halfway through the adagio of this new Bruckner No.9 I picked up a book on number symbolism, curious to see what it might say about the importance of 4 as opposed to the more obviously mystical 3. [Order, rationality, symmetry, solidity, earthbound things]. And what about the No.3? [Creation, sacred trinities, birth-life-death, past-present-future, mind-body-spirit; dualities, the soul, and the end.]
I'm mentioning this not only because I doubt the affected concern over a work being supposedly unfinished but also because I think Sir Simon's espousal of the fourth movement completion (courtesy Samale/Phillips/Cohrs/Mazzucca: another quartet to put with the Mahler 10 scholars) has created a new problem and a rod for everyone's back. The symphony now swells to an 83min duration (22:40 against Eichhorn's 30:11 from 1993, by the way), making it more of an endurance test for all concerned, if it becomes standard practice to include it. Despite the Berlin Philharmonic being the biggest fish to tackle one of the numerous completions of the finale - the VPO/Harnoncourt offer a workshop of the surviving pages - on the strength of this recording I don't think a four movement Ninth will become standard.
Sir Simon's previous forays into Bruckner (Nos.4/7) have been good but not great, sinking beneath the prior claims of conductors like Wand and Karajan. Tackling a four-movement Ninth of course gives him a fresh distinction and in some respects I think this is a better recording from Philharmonie than the previous one of No.4. All ears may be directed towards the new addition but a failure to convince with the opening three movements is inexcusable and I found myself writing the words 'industrial noise' with regard to the timpani rolls and brass volleys. There isn't a problem of haste but I noticed episodes of low current, almost disinterest, in the first movement and the third, and I felt the orchestra were playing well but with nothing like the conviction or the passion inspired by Wand, for example.
I note in the booklet Rattle's use of the phrase 'forensic musicology' to describe the 20 years(!) of work on this version of the finale by SPCM. In my lexicon, 'forensic' goes with crime scenes and dead things. Autopsies. What you should know is that there have been numerous recordings of the work in progress, as well as other completion attempts, most notably Carragan's. See [...] for a list of recordings. I feel there are some mixed messages contained in the CD booklet: Bruckner as radical yet progressive tonality is too great a leap to be credible. Really? The adagio signals with its return to the beginning tempo that a grand finale must follow. Really? Carragan's version 'analytically deductive and compositionally liberal', while SPCM offer an 'arrangement, founded on the design emerging from the reconstructed sketches'. Hmmm.
The Berlin Philharmonic are, past and present, steeped in Bruckner. Masterful and fascinating recordings of the Ninth go back to the 1940s. The fact that they were willing to look at this latest, maybe final, performing version by SPCM inspires confidence. EMI's colour design implicitly refers back to Sir Simon's celebrated Mahler 10 with the same orchestra. The linking of Bruckner and Mahler is for some habitual and it is I think a bit lazy and misleading. It would be wrong to equate the work done on Mahler 10 with Bruckner 9. The finale as presented here is not Sibelius' divine mosaic, more of an old jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing, put together as successfully as possible. The final image? There isn't one. Quotations abound, there's much of the mood of Bruckner's Wagnerian period of the Third and Fourth Symphonies, and in its distressed state it might remind you of the little known first versions of the Fourth and Eighth Symphonies, but as a satisfying resolution of No.9, hardly. A free-standing composition based on the fourth movement fragments, such as von Einem's, might have value as a reminiscence of Bruckner, but despite the presence of Rattle's BPO, this latest completion has no more authority than those to be found on other labels.
Suggestion: If you want to hear a Bruckner 9 with something new to say, from a conductor steeped in 20th cent. repertoire, I suggest you try this: Symphonie No.9