Photo, LPO

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

The ‘Bruckner problem’ (that is, the phenomenon of different versions of the Symphonies owing to his revisions of many of them, sometimes more than once) is now one which extends to the completion of the Ninth, whose Finale was left at the composer’s death in essentially full draft score, before its pages were dispersed. The performing version by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and Giuseppe Mazzuca, prepared over many years (completed 2012), has become relatively well-known (not least through Simon Rattle’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic).

Phillips has now made a revision of that, incorporating three draft passages for the coda from May 1896, bringing the whole movement closer to the draft as it may have stood at Bruckner’s death five months later, and therefore allowing audiences to hear a nearer approximation of how the music would sound. To quote Phillips from the programme note “440 bars [of the total of 649 in this new version] represent the continuity of the surviving score bifolios (68%), a further 122 were reconstructed from the sketches or continuity draft (19%). Only 87 bars (13%, nine bars fewer than in 2012), required more ‘forensic’ restoration.”

This premiere performance of this version of the Finale by the London Philharmonic fared best of all the four movements under Robin Ticciati, perhaps conveying something of a sense of excitement on this occasion, at the novelty of playing completed passages of Bruckner’s final musical thoughts for the first time. Ticciati navigated a driven, convincing way through its bustling activity, where themes and sections (some recalled from earlier on in the Symphony, or even other works) come and go in quicker succession than in the other three movements.

The Finale is marked Misterioso, nicht schnell (mysterious, not fast) but its relative swiftness here aided the cause of its hectic arguments, as did the LPO’s heftier way with many of its stormy passages, creating a monumentality that tended to be missing from the foregoing movements (the first in particular). Glistening trumpets stood out as they intoned gloriously the triumphant solemn chorale which had only appeared, less obtrusively and more gloomily, in the Adagio. Doubtless Bruckner would have tightened or revised some sections of the Finale (and even the rest of the Symphony) had he lived, but the fluency of Ticciati’s interpretation, with its reinstated passages in the coda of cogent sequences of music by Bruckner which bring together a web of motifs (much like the Finale of the Eighth) made this a quite possibly more convincing account than in the Rattle recording, using the earlier version.

The completed torso of the rest of the Symphony was not quite as satisfying. The performance was generally efficient and tame, not especially insightful or portentous, by tending to be too lean in texture to convey its apocalyptic drama and terror. The ever-so-slightly too brisk opening movement didn’t establish enough depth or space for mystery (Bruckner marks feierlich and, again, misterioso). Ticciati whipped up the central climax quite menacingly, but the coda could have been more emphatic. The horns misplaced some notes on at least three occasions which also detracted from the foreboding atmosphere, but they did redeem themselves with their glowing chords at the end of the Adagio – rightly not valedictory here but giving a foretaste of the Finale’s blazing resolution.

The Scherzo was rhythmically insistent, if not as weighty as it might have been, though some admirably clear detail from clarinets and flutes in the deliriously whirring scales of some sections gave a due impression of anxious frenzy. As elsewhere the relatively lithe textures often enabled some telling woodwind contributions to emerge which often remain obscured. The skittish Trio section sounded merely mischievous, however, instead of feverish or sinister. The Adagio moved at a reasonable pace, but only to proceed in a more linear fashion through each section rather than building cumulative force; the cataclysmic climax had alarming power, certainly, but more by being imposed in the moment than worked up through the preceding twenty minutes or so.

Where the Ninth Symphony is the Catholic Bruckner’s devout vision of the divine majesty of God, as judge and redeemer, the Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams which opened this concert are a serenely recollected expression of the Easter message of God’s love and compassion, by the composer described as a ‘Christian agnostic’. The LPO’s transparent performance suited the fact that this cycle was given in the version without chorus, and so became more chamber-like. Nonetheless in the first song in particular there were still some lovely burnished colours, as though somewhere between Elgar and Wagner. Woodwind – especially clarinets – made some tender contributions, notably in the interludes between each verse of ‘I got me flowers’ to delineate the strophic structure, and in ‘Love bade me welcome’. Simon Keenlyside enunciated the words throughout quite deliberately, syllable by syllable, giving the texts authority if not necessarily lyricism. His vociferous account of ‘Antiphon’ brought a confident end to the songs, the set making a stimulating contrast with the Bruckner to follow.

Bruckner Symphony No.9 in D-minor [movements 1-3: Nowak edition; Finale: performing version 1983-2012 by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and Giuseppe Mazzuca, revised by John A. Phillips 2021-22 (first performance)]