Wednesday 5 September 2012

A great performance of Bruckner’s completed Ninth Symphony from Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

The great Austrian composer Anton Bruckner died in 1896 leaving his Ninth Symphony apparently incomplete. Even during his own life time he was not always best served by those who endeavoured to support him with some, such as the brothers Schalk and Ferdinand Lowe, altering his works to render them more ‘acceptable’. Bruckner left his manuscripts, in the form that he wanted them, to the Hof bibliothek for, as he put it, ‘times to come’ thus showing that his own thoughts, however much they went against those trying to help him, were those he intended.

It comes as no surprise then that, after his death, Bruckner’s Ninth was subjected to the same tinkering. The three movements that were fully completed were completely re-orchestrated by the conductor Ferdinand Lowe for a performance in Vienna on 11th February 1903. It seems that the conductor found the Ninth too radical.  The manuscript of the finale of the symphony was cast aside ‘out of piety for the Master’s wishes’ and Bruckner’s Te Deum substituted instead. It is true that the use of the Te Deum was Bruckner’s preferred choice if he were unable to complete the symphony but this solution is not without its problems given that the Ninth Symphony is in D minor and the Te Deum in C major.

But was the last movement of the Ninth actually incomplete?

Bruckner was pretty methodical in his compositional methods. His music paper was prepared for him by his secretary, Anton Meissner, who wrote in the names of the instruments, the clefs and key signatures and ruled the bar lines. Nearly all of the bifolios (a single sheet folded in half to make two leaves) for the Ninth symphony contain four bars per page.

Bruckner initially worked out his musical material in sketches and particello (a score containing only the essential parts of the composition). He then notated the strings and main wind entries into the prepared bifolios which he numbered and placed one after another. The woodwind and brass parts were then scored out. Bruckner would refine his ideas concerning the music as he went along by discarding a bifolio and substituting with another. Finally he would have gone through the whole movement again adding things such as phrasing, articulation and dynamics. When a bifolio was completed to his satisfaction, Bruckner would often write ‘finished’ on the page.

Throughout 1895 and 1896 and, indeed even up until the morning of the day of his death, Bruckner was engaged in writing the finale and, according to some contemporary reports, the last movement was near completion.

After Bruckner’s death, although much of the manuscript and sketches for the finale were entrusted to the care of Bruckner’s pupil, Joseph Schalk, many pages were lost to souvenir hunters.

Despite this, attempts at a reconstruction were undertaken such as in 1934 as part of the Bruckner Complete Edition when a study volume was published, edited by Alfred Orel, containing transcriptions of many of the finale manuscripts. Unfortunately there were many mistakes in this edition and several sources were omitted.

It was not until 1985 that any serious attempt to reconstruct the manuscripts and sketches was made when Nicola Samale and Guiseppe Mazzuca published their ‘Ricostruzione’. Their achievement led to Leopold Novak, director of the Bruckner Complete Edition, asking the Australian composer and musicologist, John Phillips to undertake a systematic reconstruction of the material.

Phillips carefully gathered and ordered the scattered manuscripts, undertaking detailed research into the paper and handwriting and thus resolving many issues. Importantly, sketches were found for the coda, long thought lost, including the 24 bar concluding cadence.

Concurrent with this work, William Carragan produced a performing version in 1984 (revised in 2003, 2006 and 2010) but this has been considered more ‘compositionally liberal.’

Phillips’ work led to the publication, in 1991, of a ‘definitive’ performing version of the finale by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca. It was this edition, with revisions made in 1996, that was recorded by the New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia conducted by Johannes Wildner in 1998 and issued by Naxos Records in 2003

The complete final movement consists of 653 bars of which only 96 bars, where there were gaps, have been supplemented by the editors. It can be seen then that Bruckner had indeed virtually completed this work and, despite the use of the words ‘definitive’ and ‘conclusive’ used in the editions, there must still be the chance of further manuscripts or sketches being found.

Wildner’s performance was certainly a good enough one to give the opportunity to hear a recording of the last movement in the Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca edition. Lasting over 82 minutes this recording was spread over two CDs.

There have been other recordings such as Yoel Levi’s1985 Oslo Philharmonic performance for Chandos (MP3 download only) but this gave the William Carragan performing version of the finale.

A new ‘Conclusive Revised Edition’ of the Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca performing edition was published in 2012 and it is this edition that has now been recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. This EMI release, again over 82 minutes, is on one CD.

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It must be said at the outset that Rattle’s performance is no mere curiosity but a reading of sensitivity, power and weight. From the opening, Rattle brings a strange otherworldliness to the music with wonderfully hushed tones. There is also a great breadth to the climaxes with the conductor drawing a massive tautness from the orchestra. The coda of the first movement is full of mystery and strange harmonics before the tumultuous conclusion.

Rattle catches all the changing moods of the second movement scherzo with wonderful details. As throughout this performance, the control of dynamics is impressive.

It is surely in the adagio that Bruckner shows how radically this symphony would develop. Rattle’s opening delivers more emotion than I have ever heard before and the finely controlled climaxes build naturally. There are many magically conceived quiet moments and Rattle brings out the remarkable dissonances that, in this performance, seem to look forward to Mahler or even Schoenberg. The clashing dissonances in the climax towards the end of this movement are spectacular.

In the final movement Bruckner ventures even further into new territory with a dotted rhythm that occurs throughout bringing an uncertainly and instability to the music. But this is still pure Bruckner with the brass soaring over the orchestra in the climaxes. The harmonics are more advanced than ever before and, at times, it sounds as though Bruckner is struggling to overcome emotional doubts. In the coda dissonances build up again but the composer finally casts aside any doubts with the music giving way to a triumphant conclusion.

Simon Rattle brings his usual attention to detail alongside a monumental vision of the whole work. This is a great performance of a work that surely now must remain in its intended four movement version. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is in superb form and the vivid live recording adds to the impact of the performance.

See also:

Should unfinished works be left alone?

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