Bruckner: Symphony No. 9

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bruckner
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Westphalia New PO/Johannes Wildner
CATALOGUE NO: 8.555933-34
There have been previous, more or less lamentable ‘completions’ of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, but according to Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs’s erudite notes they were based on ignorance of Bruckner’s working methods and only partial knowledge of the wide-scattered surviving manuscripts. The complete autograph materials – dispersed immediately after the composer’s death and not collected together until 1991 – are no disjointed collection of ideas. Bruckner had progressed to a continuous full-score draft (now with some gaps, which can mostly be remedied from sketch material) of about five-sixths of the movement; and contrary to legend, some sketches for the coda do exist, even including the final cadence. Bruckner’s suggestion that, if he died without completing the finale, his Te Deum (to which the finale alludes) should be played instead, shows he would never have accepted, as we have, a three-movement Bruckner 9 as ‘complete in itself’. Justification therefore for providing a finale which, if it cannot disclose Bruckner’s ultimate vision, is at least overwhelmingly Bruckner’s own music, design and orchestration. Nicola Samale and Giuseppe Mazzuca published a preliminary version of their reconstruction in 1985; the Bruckner scholars Cohrs and John A Phillips collaborated in the final version offered here. (There is a rival reconstruction by the Canadian William Carragan, which I have not heard.)

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It’s certainly full of extraordinary music (the discs are worth buying just to hear the finale’s magnificent ‘Choralthema’ in full agonised splendour and context) and continuously fascinating. That isn’t quite the same as continuously convincing: there are moments when, even though the continuity of voice-leading and harmony appears seamless, the actual thought seems to wander. Bruckner’s struggles with his materials and conception were evidently not entirely resolved: but the materials presented here are worth anybody’s hearing. I do not know the rival version by Kurt Eic**orn on iClassics. But taking the Symphony overall, if Johannes Wildner’s account of the first three movements is unlikely to displace Karajan, Tintner or Walter among the classic versions, he nevertheless directs a very powerful, fiercely focused performance, emotionally raw in the first movement, tending towards mystery in the Adagio, and with a sinewy strength that seems to presage Mahler or even Hindemith. The Westphalia orchestra, which I’ve admired on some other recent CDs, is an excellent body and Naxos’s recording, occasionally on the harsh side, captures the alternating dynamic extremes to perfection. Calum MacDonald