Bruckner: Symphony No. 9

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 9
A frustrating experience. When this performance is good, it’s very good. Time and again I was struck by fine, shapely, expressive phrasing, or rounded, beautifully balanced orchestral sound (impressive despite the dryish recording). The coda of the first movement is hair-raising, its slow song-theme almost voluptuously warm; the second movement’s central trio section has just the right balance of smiling innocence and sinister sensuality; the Adagio’s first theme strives magnificently – though I’m not quite so sure about the schmaltzy swoop at the very opening. But set against all these virtues are those passages where Davis piles on the magisterial emphasis. Take the beginning of the Symphony: the sheer sound of the opening string tremolo is riveting; the horn theme is full of latent power; then, as the horns rise to fortissimo, comes the big broadening of tempo. To my ears it’s like adding heavy weights just when the music seems to be going somewhere. The same thing happens on an even bigger scale at the first movement’s huge central climax. It makes the music less, not more imposing. Admittedly, it was the first movement that bothered me most in this respect. Davis is especially impressive in the later stages of the Adagio. But put the whole performance beside the Günter Wand/Berlin Philharmonic version and you can see how a Bruckner Nine can be expansive and reverential without ever losing that underlying sense of spiritual quest. Wand’s approach to the Adagio’s catastrophic final climax is revelatory – you can feel the very foundations of Bruckner’s faith shuddering. By contrast, Davis’s is a performance of insights, but not one single overarching vision. Stephen Johnson