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 Recording of the Week  Bruckner Symphonies from Rattle and Barenboim

One of the perennial quandaries facing musicians is what to do when a composer dies leaving a work unfinished. Should the incomplete torso be presented as it is, or should attempts be made to complete it? I suppose it depends on the work in question: few people nowadays object to Süssmayr’s completion of Mozart’s Requiem, but pieces such as Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and Elgar’s Third have by no means gained universal acceptance.

Simon Rattle
Simon Rattle

One such work left tantalisingly close to completion is the Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner. While the first three movements were finished, only sketches and an incomplete full score draft remain of the last. Normally performances include just movements one to three, but occasional efforts have been made to prepare a finale from the available material, and it is one such attempt that we are presented with in a new recording from Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Here is not the place to go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that more than 90% of the movement already existed in full score or could be reconstructed from the sketches, and the musicologists involved claim that there were only twenty-eight bars that had to be composed from scratch in order to form a coherent whole. As Rattle says in his opening apologia, “There is much more Bruckner here than there is Mozart in the Requiem”.

It’s certainly very interesting stuff, although I must admit that I don’t think it’s consistently top-drawer Bruckner. While it has many moments that are, in my opinion, the equal of anything from the Seventh or Eighth symphonies, I also felt that just occasionally there was the odd passage that began to outstay its welcome slightly. On the whole, though, it’s very much worth investigating to hear what could have been, had Bruckner lived for just a few more weeks.

Regarding Rattle’s overall conception of the symphony, tempos are generally relatively brisk, especially in the first movement. His is quite an urgent reading, with a seeming insistence not to dwell over any particular phrase, lest accusations of stodginess arise. This is quite understandable, even preferable, given the circumstances, and because he has such a fine orchestra at his command he is able to sustain this without sacrificing heft; a noble horn sound and incisive trumpets add greatly to the impact.

Daniel Barenboim
Daniel Barenboim

If that leaves you hankering for more Bruckner, then you’ll be pleased to hear about another recent recording, this time of the Seventh Symphony, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin. Listening to it immediately after the Rattle disc, I hope it’s not too unkind to say that I felt the opening phrase for horn and cellos maybe didn’t quite possess the fullness of tone that their rivals provide for Rattle, but by the end of the performance I so warmed to Barenboim’s approach that this hardly seemed to matter. What kept me interested most was his sense of architecture and pacing; although tempos tend to be quite expansive (more in line, perhaps, with ‘traditional’ readings of Bruckner symphonies), I didn’t feel that it lost its way ever, and Barenboim shows us how to pull off slow speeds while still maintaining direction and purpose.

This is most evident in the second movement, where there is an excellent build-up to the climax. It’s excitingly paced, with some wonderfully dark colours from the Wagner tubas. For those interested, this is the original version of the symphony (so, yes, the sometimes-omitted cymbal clash and triangle at the moment of arrival are included). The brass section is pleasing throughout, with the trumpets possessing a real bite that adds a nice edge to the rounded sound from the horns and strings. All in all, highly recommended!

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor

Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E Major

Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC