Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor

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COMPOSERS: Bruckner
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Symphony No. 9 in D minor
PERFORMER: Vienna PO/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 471 032-2
There’s no doubt as to which of these new Bruckner Ninths is the more seductive. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado is of exceptional sensuous beauty and technical refinement, and the recording serves it well. Rather than creating an idealised conductor’s perspective, the placing of the microphones gives the listener the impression that he or she is hearing the performance from a good seat in the auditorium (with only the horns slightly recessed). In Abbado’s performance the music unfolds naturally and inevitably: tempi controlled but supple enough to prevent rigidity.

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Compared with Abbado, Skrowaczewski’s handling of the ritardando at the first big climax feels slightly awkward. But while the playing of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra may be technically less impressive than that of the Vienna Philharmonic (and much less flatteringly recorded), there’s something special about Skrowaczewski’s performance. The phrasing is wonderful, not just in the long spans, but in the tiny expressive details – it can be gritty, even acerbic, but there are times when it speaks from somewhere very deep indeed. In Bruckner’s long crescendos Skrowaczewski often holds the tempo (unlike Abbado, who’s prone to accelerate) but the steady accumulation of intensity is riveting.

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Going back to Abbado after hearing Skrowaczewski, I find the suavity less appealing, even when the expression seems intense enough. Good as the Abbado generally is, it’s Skrowaczewski who has the more compelling sense of this work as a dark spiritual progress. While it hasn’t persuaded me to give away the recent Wand/Berlin Philharmonic version – one of the noblest Bruckner Nines ever recorded – I shall certainly keep it. Skrowaczewski has things to tell us about this symphony which every Brucknerian ought to hear. Stephen Johnson