Fate didn’t look kindly on Bruckner.
His symphonies cruelly attacked, or subjected to disastrous cuts by his well-meaning students, he was mocked by his many detractors for his quaint country manners and odd behaviour. His life seemed beset by ridicule and disappointment.
Only his unwavering belief in God, to whom the Ninth Symphony was dedicated, provided him with the determination to persevere during periods of crisis. Even so, towards the end, he still had moments of doubt.
Tragically, he failed to complete his Ninth Symphony, struggling with it even on the day he died. Just as tragic was its first performance in Vienna in 1903 in a severely mutilated form concocted by Ferdinand Löwe, one of Bruckner’s pupils.
It wasn’t until 1932 that what Bruckner actually wrote was heard in Munich at a private concert. Its first public performance was given later that year by Clemens Krauss and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The best recording
For many listeners, Bruckner’s Ninth is the most visionary of all symphonies. I first heard it as a teenager in Bruno Walter’s classic 1959 recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and have been under its spell ever since. The list of great recordings is a long one, and still growing.
The fact that even legendary Brucknerians such as Sergiu Celibidache, Otto Klemperer, Eugen Jochum, Herbert von Karajan, Bernard Haitink, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Günter Wand – all superb in their different ways – don’t make the shortlist here is testimony to the Ninth’s continuing fascination.
It’s to Carlo Maria Giulini that I’m drawn again and again – one can never tire of his profound realisation of this wonderful score. His live Vienna Philharmonic account from 1988, beautifully recorded, is a humbling experience.
From its misty opening, clearly indebted to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to the ethereal ending of the Adagio, this performance is just about perfect. Giulini’s terracing of Bruckner’s unorthodox orchestral structure, quite unlike that of any other symphonist, is a wonder of internal clarity, no detail overlooked, no texture smudged.
The Vienna Philharmonic is the Bruckner orchestra par excellence, its burnished string tone a special glory, woodwind and brass superbly alert and to the fore. In climaxes, the sound of the orchestra at full throttle is simply overwhelming, horns and trombones waging antiphonal war to hair-raising effect.
Even within his own outstanding list of recordings, Giulini’s Bruckner Ninth Symphony is possibly the most precious gift this great conductor has.
Three more great recordings
Some would reckon that Wilhelm Furtwängler is the echt Bruckner conductor, and this recording, set down in Second World War Berlin, is like no other.
It’s as if Furtwängler were mirroring the devastating world events unfolding beyond the walls of the Beethoven-Saal where this Berlin Philharmonic recording was made – tempos in the first movement are often frenetic, he unleashes the dogs of war in the Scherzo and the Adagio’s dissonant climactic chord becomes an agonised scream.
Excellently remastered, this 1944 recording is now available on the Praga Digitals label.
What better testament to Abbado than this moving 2013 recording from his final concert with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra?
Although mortally ill, he summons up all his reserves to produce a performance of great resolve and personal strength, not so much a farewell as a vision of what might come.
Whereas Karajan and Klemperer head straight for Mount Olympus, Abbado favours a more human approach. His star-studded orchestra plays sublimely for its hero and DG’s sound is exemplary.
What is it about Italian conductors? On the evidence of their recordings, they simply seem to ‘get’ Bruckner’s Ninth.
Fabio Luisi’s beautifully recorded live 2003 recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle is the third by an Italian in my chosen quartet.
The first movement heaves like a mighty ocean, its uneasy ebb and flow flawlessly managed; the Scherzo has all the savagery demanded of it; and the Adagio, with its vast mood swings between faith and despair, is simply superb.
And one to avoid
Leonard Bernstein was gracious enough to concede that, when it came to Bruckner, he could not compete with Herbert von Karajan.
The Bruckner idiom does indeed seem alien to him on this 1990 Vienna Philharmonic recording. He seems to be trying hard to find links with Gustav Mahler… but really, there aren’t any.