Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic deliver Bruckner’s Ninth in all its restored, majestic glory
Bruckner, by all accounts, was a modest man. Throughout his life, he acquiesced to substantial revisions of his symphonies by conductors who felt they needed cutting and correcting to make them more palatable. “Do what you like,” he is quoted as saying, “as long as they get performed.”
Given such generous license from the composer himself it is ironic that it took over a century for Bruckner’s last testament – the finale of his Symphony No. 9 – to be heard. Left incomplete at his death in 1896 and picked apart by autograph hunters in the following weeks, the score became a puzzle, which scholars mostly viewed with trepidation. On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, Sir Simon Rattle led the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a passionate performance of the most recent and persuasive reconstruction of Bruckner’s four-movement Ninth.
In a way, scruples are to blame for the long delay. The problem to many of Bruckner’s admirers wasn’t so much the missing material – pages of which surfaced as recently as 2003 – but rather the extant fragments themselves.
For generations, the epic “Farewell to Life” Adagio had served as the conclusion of the symphony, which the devoutly Catholic Bruckner dedicated to the Almighty Himself. Now, according to the sketches, it was to be followed by a tormented, even bizarre, finale. Full of strafing dissonances and unwieldy themes stacked on top of each other, it suggested, to many, an ailing Bruckner who was losing the thread of his last symphony.
To the authors of the new performance version (Nicola Samale, John Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and Giuseppe Mazzuca) the final movement only proves how far ahead of his time Bruckner was. Over the past thirty years, successive versions of their closing movement have been performed by adventurous conductors working, for the most part, with provincial German orchestras. Now that Rattle and the Berliner have taken on the “final” reconstruction from 2011 – a recording will be released in May – the fourth movement will likely enter the canon. Less clear is whether other orchestras can match the Berliner’s technical brilliance and wild energy, sustained over a performance of 80-minutes.
At Carnegie Hall Friday night, they turned out in full force, with a massive contingent of strings, and a battery of trombones centered between the trumpets and the horns. The first movement quickly established the full range of the color palette, from the initial subliminal timpani roll, half-felt like a subway rumble, to the big foaming climaxes with swirling strings crashing against towering brass chords. In a work with so many peaks, the challenge lies in the intervening quiet and developmental passages, to neither slack off nor keep the tension so taut that the next outburst loses its shock value. Rattle steered a fine course—bringing a subtle flexibility to the singing second theme, and leading a halting pianissimo scale downwards with no rush to find out where it leads.
In the very brisk Scherzo he changed gears with great fluidity, revealing something unhinged in the way that pounding rhythm morphs from savage to danceable at the drop of a hat. Few orchestras are as physically animated as the Berliners, the violins swaying as one during the big luscious melodies, the double basses head-banging along to the fortissimo down-bows. In a passage early on in the third movement the violins–playing only a supporting role to the winds–produced a juicy tremolo that saw them using a third of the bow: an exhausting, big-hearted gesture considering they still had an hour to play.
The reconstructed finale opens with a question-and-answer motif, then quickly rears up into a Dies Irae-like theme. The second theme is derived from the first, the dotted rhythm becoming more halting, then giving way to wistful variations in the strings. There are all the elements of a Bruckner symphony movement, but piled almost on top of one another: a luscious string melody, a glorious chorale in the brass, a breathless fugue, a solo trumpet Day-of-Reckoning call. More than once, sharply dissonant chords bring the proceedings to an abrupt halt. A recurring Schumann-like development offers a few moments of reprieve, but on the whole there is a sense of multiple impressions crashing into each other.
Someone once likened the Ninth’s final movement to Purgatory following the Adagio’s farewell to life, but with quotations from the symphony’s previous movements as well as earlier Bruckner works, it also fits the vision of a man’s life flashing in review during his final moments. The very end is, of course, a jubilant one, with fiery brass chords proclaiming a triumphant D major resolution.
At close to an hour and a half running time, the reconstructed Ninth has grown into the kind of symphonic python that Brahms found so repulsive. But as was evident from Rattle’s ardent performance and the stormy applause that followed it, there is more than just morbid fascination in hearing it uncoil to its full and newly restored magnitude.