A New Ninth

Catching up rather belatedly, London hears Bruckner’s Ninth – and last – Symphony with four – yes four – movements on Wednesday next (16 December), courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor Daniel Harding. It completes a run of Bruckner symphonies across the capital which started with Skrowaczewski’s Fifth at the end of October and last Sunday continued with Harding’s Bruckner Four at the Barbican, in competition with Andris Nelsons’ Bruckner Eight with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall.

Completions are – rather bizarrely to my way of thinking – usually rather contentious. Toscanini laid down his baton where Puccini s topped in the third act of Turandot at the première, even though Alfano had completed the work from Puccini’s sketches (his full completion not heard until some 60 years after). And there are those that would rather have just the two acts of Lulu that Berg completed, rather than Cerha’s completed three acts, and only the first-movement Adagio of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, denying the power of the fully-sketched complete work in any of its completions.

Thankfully the younger generation of conductors – Chailly, Rattle, Mark Wigglesworth and Daniel Harding, all of whom have grown up with the knowledge of Deryck Cooke’s completion (eventually with the blessing of Alma Mahler) of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony –have championed it and I cannot now regard Mahler’s symphonic canon as stopping at his Ninth Symphony. Indeed, stopping there mistakenly leads to an assumption that the Ninth’s finale is a farewell to life, whereas the Tenth shows Mahler possibly forging a new direction.

Whether the same thing can be said for adding a fourth movement – which we know Bruckner had been considering, composing and procrastinating over for some years – to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is unlikely; but our impression that he left only three movements because he couldn’t ‘top’ that is just as mistaken as reading a death wish into Mahler’s Ninth. Like Mahler’s Tenth, there are numerous attempts at completions of Bruckner’s final orchestral movement using the various sketches that remain extant (I like the story that souvenir hunters were happy to take sheets of the sketches of the finale from Bruckner’s death bed), but perhaps the longest in gestation is the 29-year project between four musicologists – Nicola Samale, John A Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and Giuseppe Mazzuca – which is the version that Harding will conduct next week.

He knows an earlier version of the score, as he conducted the première of the last ‘work-in- progress’ version (2007) in Stockholm. Since then further research and work (including the removal of two speculative bars) resulted in a ‘Conclusive Revised Editions (2012)’ of the ‘Completed Performing Version’ which was dedicated to ‘Sir Simon Rattle with gratitude.’ Rattle premièred this final version with his Berliner Philharmoniker just over three years ago (7-9 November 2012), later taking it to New York and, subsequently, EMI (now Warner) issued a live recording.

I have grown to love the recording, but tend to listen to the final movement alone, so hearing it in concert directly after the original three movements will be fascinating and perhaps unnerving. The shock is the return of themes from previous symphonies – Bruckner’s intention being a summation of his musical career – but it has started to make more and more sense. Although I will always be happy with three-movement renditions – such as Christoph von Dohnányi’s with the Philharmonia taped live at the Salzburg Festival 2014 (I’d heard it earlier in a run-out from London, in Basingstoke) – I have no problem with the validity of this completion of the finale. It might not have been Bruckner’s last word, but it seems wonderfully Brucknerian to me.

More anon.

Nick Breckenfield

Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years, and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.
Author: Nick Breckenfield
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