To Finish Or Not? Bruckner’s Ninth Gets New Readings

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Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor (including Gerd Schaller’s revised version of the completed final movement). Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller. Profil PH18030 (2 CDs). Total Time: 87:22.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 in A major. Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Wagner: Siegfried IdyllParsifal: Prelude to Act I. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons. DG 483 6659 (2 CDs). Total Time: 151:58.

DIGITAL REVIEW – Some of classical music’s greatest masterpieces were left unfinished when their composers died, among the best examples being Mozart’s Requiem, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, Puccini’s Turandot and Berg’s Lulu. In each case, the composer left sketches, which over the years other composers used with varying degrees of success to complete these works.

Bruckner’s last symphony, the Ninth, is another important example of a work left unfinished by its composer. Its three completed movements are often played, and in this form the Ninth Symphony has been accepted by most conductors as being “finished.” Others have taken Bruckner’s voluminous sketches for a final movement as a challenge to come up with at least a version of what the composer might have intended.

With this new recording, Gerd Schaller, conductor and Bruckner authority, offers his latest word on a final movement for the symphony. While it is exciting to hear a great composer’s sketches brought to life (think of that legendary Omnibus CBS television program in 1954 when Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s various sketches for the Fifth Symphony), having heard Schaller’s latest realization of Bruckner’s sketches, I seriously doubt its value beyond that of a scholarly exercise.

There is no doubt that the composer intended to add a fourth movement. All that remains of the fourth movement, however, is a bundle of sketches that don’t add up to anything easily translated into a performing version. While some sections are worked out in considerable detail, others are not much more than hints, and there is little or no indication of what Bruckner had in mind for the final coda. Although he worked on this movement in his last years, the composer himself realized that he might never finish it and encouraged the use of his Te Deum as a final movement. In fact, this is how the Ninth Symphony was performed at its premiere in Vienna in 1903.

In the booklet accompanying this new recording, Schaller has written more than 20 pages of notes on how he approached the job of bringing Bruckner’s sketches to life and offers a detailed, almost bar-by-bar commentary on Bruckner’s sketches and on how he chose to use them. Schaller’s commentary would have been far more useful with musical examples. In fact, without the score, it is almost impossible to follow, even for scholars.

Note that Bruckner’s sketches are available for scholarly study at the Austrian National Library in Vienna, and Schaller’s performing edition (supplemented from original sources and completed by Schaller) is available as a published score from Ries & Erler, Berlin.

Schaller brings a lifetime of study and performance to Bruckner’s music. He has undoubtedly worked long and hard to make sense of the surviving sketches for the Ninth and put this music in a form suitable for performance. It is also clear from his commentary that in many instances he had to make major decisions about which sketches superseded others, how to order them, and most importantly, how to bridge the gaps where no sketches existed. In the coda, for example, Schaller made the decision to bring back thematic material from the opening of the first movement even though Bruckner left no indication that is what he had in mind.

Unfortunately, Schaller’s realization of the fourth movement of Bruckner’s Ninth, a formidable undertaking and at more than 25 minutes in length a substantial piece of music, is far inferior in quality to the preceding three movements completed by Bruckner himself. My overall impression is that it is second- or third-rate Bruckner at best and unworthy in any way to be presented as what the composer intended. Bruckner worked on the last movement over a prolonged period and was obviously unsatisfied with his own results. For anyone to simply stitch together scraps from Bruckner’s desk after his death is to speculate far beyond supporting evidence of what the composer intended and what he might have written.

The Philharmonie Festiva, a pick-up orchestra brought together from time to time for various Schaller projects, is a good orchestra and has been well recorded in the former Cistercian Abbey in Ebrach, Germany.

By comparison, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig is one of the world’s oldest and greatest orchestras. Under its current music director, Andris Nelsons, it is part way through recording all the Bruckner symphonies, together with shorter Wagner pieces on each release. Its performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony  in the usual three-movement format is excellent, with string playing of far greater sonority and finesse than Schaller’s Philharmonie Festiva. Not so long ago, when the Gewandhausorchester suffered behind the Iron Curtain as a part of East Germany, the strings were superb, but the winds and brass came nowhere near the same standard. Today that is no longer the case. Under Riccardo Chailly and now Nelsons, the orchestra is first-rate in all departments.

In the Bruckner on this CD, Nelsons goes for a blended, rather bland sound, which to my ears is often restrained to the point of boredom in these performances. I kept waiting for him to let the orchestra out, as it were, but it never happened, even in the major climaxes. Nor did I hear Bruckner’s expressive power and rapture as brought out by conductors such as Furtwängler, Jochum, and Karajan.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll has always struck me as a meandering, incoherent piece – albeit with good tunes – that works best in its original version for 15 solo players. Nelsons chooses instead the orchestral version, which is given a routine reading. The Parsifal Prelude is beautifully played, but as in the Bruckner, there is an objectivity to Nelsons’ reading that is at odds with the sublime ecstasy inherent in the music.

A page from Bruckner’s sketches for the finale to the unfinished Symphony No. 9. Some of the  pages are virtually blank. Bruckner materials are available for study at the Austrian National Library and the Petrucci Music Library (imslp.org).

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org) and www.myscena.org.