Cheating death: a review of Bruckner, Rattle, and the Berliner Philharmoniker at Carnegie, 2/24/12

This concert featured Bruckner’s death-haunted Ninth Symphony, but with a difference.  Although Bruckner died after completing only three of the four movements, the Berliners gave the American premiere of a Finale reconstructed by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and Giuseppe Mazzuca (“SPCM”).  This is one of the great musicological undertakings of modern times, involving over twenty years of research and analysis of the sketches.  The result overturns the conventional wisdom that Bruckner only completed fragments of the Finale, and restores some astounding passages of music, some of his greatest.

So I’m reluctant to report that at least for me, the whole didn’t quite work.

The $64,000 question is: how much of this reconstructed Finale is genuine Bruckner?  Anyone with the patience to delve into that question should read Cohrs’ detailed introduction to the reconstruction, available here (an invaluable Bruckner website).  There’s also the “Documentation of the Finale Fragment,” SPCM’s performing edition of the separate blocks of music Bruckner had fully completed; this is included in Harnoncourt’s recording of the Ninth, here.  On May 22, EMI will release a recording of Rattle’s performance of the fully reconstructed movement.

SPCM have demonstrated that Bruckner left behind much more of this music than we’ve been led to believe.  Unfortunately, unlike Mahler’s Tenth, there’s not enough to provide seamless musical continuity from beginning to end–there are still gaps (96 of the 653 bars) that SPCM had to fill with their own music, based on Bruckner’s sketches.  Only a few such sketches exist for the coda.  Nevertheless, there’s enough to finally reveal the character of the Finale.

We might have expected a glorious affirmation like the Te Deum, since Bruckner suggested using that work as the finale when he realized that he might not finish the symphony.  But no; the Finale is what Cohrs calls a “toccata infernale,” propelled by an insistent dotted rhythm in the main theme, punctuated by a fugue after the development, and finally resolving in a “Hallelujah” coda.  Contrast is provided by the lyrical second theme, and the third theme, one of the most magnificent chorales Bruckner ever wrote (here at 2:03).  If the Adagio is a confrontation with Death itself, Cohrs tells us that the Finale is the Last Judgment, capped by redemption.

So, how was it?

It goes without saying that the Berliners played beautifully.  The blend of the strings in pianissimo is a wonder to hear, and the brasses were balanced within the orchestra even at their loudest.  As a result, full orchestra fortissimos had depth as well as volume.  It also goes without saying that Rattle is a superb conductor.  Nuances abounded in this beautiful performance; for instance, he had the strings drop to a mere whisper at the second strain of the first movement’s lyrical second theme.  Perhaps the climaxes of the first movement, and the Scherzo, lacked the last degree of vehemence and violence found in the very best performances of the past.  But in the coda to the first movement, and in the Adagio, the playing was on another level, magnificently focused and vividly characterized.

And the Finale?  The majority of the reconstruction is convincing.  It has the daring harmonic shifts, harsh dissonances, and jagged melodic contours of the earlier movements, lending the music that peculiar combination of expansiveness, frenzy, and despair which distinguishes the Ninth from Bruckner’s other symphonies.  Amanda pointed out, though, that the restless, chugging textures throughout the reconstructed Finale are unlike the preceding three movements, which feature simple textures that move slowly, accumulating power over long spans.  (The only exception is the Trio of the second movement, but even that is spare and short.)

For me, doubts begin to set in during the recapitulation, which has a few abrupt, jolting halts in momentum–nothing like the pregnant pauses which punctuate Bruckner’s other symphonies.  Not surprisingly, the doubts take over in the coda, with the least amount of music in Bruckner’s hand, the most “forensic” new composition by SPCM.  And that’s a pity, since the coda is the resolution of the movement and the entire work.

Bruckner indicated that he planned to restate the main themes of the other movements here, and some of the music SPCM supplies–especially the later elaboration of the combined themes against the rhythm of the Scherzo, pounded out by the timpani–is wonderful.  The problem is the lead-in; I found that SPCM lurched suddenly into the first reprise of the first movement’s main theme.  This moment lacks the power of its model, a passage in the finale of the Eighth that inexorably builds tension into a thunderous restatement of the first movement’s main theme, seen here (buildup begins at 1:00, restatement at 1:58):

Similarly, the Ninth’s final “Halleluja,” the closing cadence, is introduced by a sudden turn to the major in the midst of a general tumult, after which the concluding phrases seem far too short to offer true redemption.  Again, nothing like the astounding conclusion to the Eighth (above, starting at 3:21).  I find it hard to believe that Bruckner’s mastery of form, that sense of sheer inevitability that marks all his greatest finales, wouldn’t have shaped the result here.

The SPCM reconstruction shows an amazing understanding of Bruckner’s idiom. Even the weaker passages sound like his music.  (Just not his best music.)  Most of the movement is superb.  Where it falls short, at least for me, is in form–in a natural sense of progression in the coda.  This isn’t surprising, since form is the most elusive element of Bruckner’s style, that alchemy which transforms repetition over long spans of time, punctuated by pauses, into an organic musical flow of immense power.

I’m tremendously grateful for SPCM’s magnificent achievement.  I look forward to further performances and recordings of their work.  But I don’t think the Ninth must be performed with this reconstructed Finale.  I can’t agree that this completed Finale gives us the full symphony in what SPCM call “its definitive form.”  The reconstruction goes beyond what Bruckner left behind; it claims to restore what death and neglect have denied to posterity.  But anyone who has experienced loss knows that this is a futile endeavor.  You can’t cheat death.


About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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6 Responses to Cheating death: a review of Bruckner, Rattle, and the Berliner Philharmoniker at Carnegie, 2/24/12

  1. Keith Hodges says:

    Excellent review. I’m not sure the reconstructed 4th movement worked for me on the whole, either. Nevertheless, it was a sublime performance.

  2. Barry Bernstein says:

    I went to Berlin from London for the first performance and then watched it on the digital channel.Now that i have watched it several times my impression is that Bruckner was getting closer to early Schoenberg than even in the opening of the adagio..The foundations of minimilism are also found in this last movement as well.
    Its funny one of my favourite film score music is Hans Zimmers ending of The Da Vinci Code. When we hear the recapitulation of the chorale towards the end of the finale, we hear a very similar kind of theme to the Zimmer minimilism from the Da Vinci Code. I would not be surprised if Zimmer was “influenced” by this ,and infact uses it to even greater effect in his “coda” to The Da Vinci Code.
    For me however this completed 9th is up there with the finest symphonies in the whole repertory and after 116 years Bruckner can finaly join Beethoven as the two greatest composers of symphonies…

    • I agree that the completed Finale shows that Bruckner was venturing into new territory; if only he had lived long enough to get all the way there. As for his links to minimalism, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra highlighted that relationship by programming works by John Adams during their Bruckner festival last summer at Lincoln Center.
      Thanks to you both for the comments.

  3. Bert Brouwer says:

    To me Michael’s last words say it all: “You can’t cheat death”. To me it’s feasible that Bruckner didn’t even started working on the finale of his 9th, but rewrote a movement of one of his earlier symphonies – by the sound of it maybe his First symphony (Vienna version).

  4. I don’t know exactly what you other people heard, but I am intimately familiar with the 90s version recorded by Kurt Eichorn. One can quibble all one wants about this passage or that, but to make the argument that hearing the work performed as Bruckner never wanted it– without any finale at all– is somehow superior to this reconstruction (or any other reconstruction for that matter) is to put it bluntly, silly and stupid. But then again, I’m a simple minded “something is better than nothing” and “do the best you can with what you’ve got” kind of guy. So to me, it’s a bit like arguing that the Bartok 3rd piano concerto should be performed minus the last 17 bars that were completed by Tibor Serly. To put it another way, Simon Rattle was here in Los Angeles a couple of months ago and I heard the broadcast today, I altered the entire day’s schedule to hear what he would do with the finale. What did he do? Nothing. He didn’t play it at all. Never in my entire life have I been so angry with a conductor at the conclusion of a concert. But then again, I never heard a conductor perform, for example, only the first three movements of the Beethoven 9th, and then quote Porky Pig: “Uma Uba, That’s all folks!” . As to your complaints about the coda, I don’t think any of you have any idea what your talking about. This coda is probably not a lot different than Bruckner himself would have given us. And its every bit the equal of those he did. If you want to argue this further, I’ll put my 5 movement string quartet up against any composition of any of you. We’ll so who knows about form and who doesn’t. In other words, let’s take this not outside, but inside, into the recital hall. I’d be willing to wager I’ll be able to find far more faults with your works than you of mine, and certainly you of this reconstruction.

  5. Kevin Scott says:

    Unfortunately, I was not at the performance of this work, but I have heard Rattle’s recording of this version, and in many ways, Michael is correct in his summation. However, I wish he had heard the other completions – Carragan, Josephson and Letocart – in comparison, all of which are far more convincing and coherent when stacked against the Samale-Mazzuca-Cohrs-Phillps version. The Letocart, all but unknown to many, is as close to Bruckner as we’re going to get. Yes, on the surface, one can hear similarities, but when you get to the coda, both are quite different. Some may accuse Letocart of trying to imitate the coda of the finale of Bruckner’s eighth symphony, but it’s better than the over-the-top, trying to combine all the themes so everyone can recognize them outright version that SMPC have presented.

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