mon 16/12/2019

Pires, LSO, Harding, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Pires, LSO, Harding, Barbican

Pires, LSO, Harding, Barbican

Bruckner's completed Ninth Symphony: well worth the wait

Maria Joao Pires, Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra in Turin, December 2015© Pasquale Juzzolino

Imagine knowing Hamlet as a four-act play, or The Ambassadors without its bottom third. Imagine  Mozart’s Requiem as a torso that halts eight bars into the Lacrymosa, or Mahler’s Tenth as the lone Adagio (as, indeed it too often appears). We might admire them all the more for what we ached to feel whole as their creators intended.

So it is with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, hitherto almost universally known as a three-movement torso. Almost four years ago the Berliner Philharmoniker played and recorded the final version of the most convincing of many attempts over the years to complete the finale. Last night the London Symphony Orchestra gave its UK premiere, and not before time. Here you may read the background – and you should, if only to appreciate the decades of both loving and determined scholarly work conducted by Nicola Samale, John Phillips, Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs and Giuseppe Mazzuca (SPCM). 

It is only at the moment of seemingly irreversible catastrophe that D major is discovered and revealed

In the first half, a reduced LSO had been sensitive accompanists to the evident musical love affair between conductor Daniel Harding and Maria João Pires which may be overheard on their fine Onyx recording of two Beethoven concertos including the Third, played last night. Every pugnacious attack from Pires made something happen in the outer movements, and she set the tone of the central Largo with a keyboard philosopher’s opening solo that hung in the air and would not be rushed on, but Harding had much to contribute in the kind of sighing phrases that illustrated how much Beethoven owed to Mozart in this genre. The affair was consummated at the piano stool, as Harding and Pires together played Solveig’s Song.

The presence of the finale inevitably worked backwards on the rest of the Ninth, filling out the gaunt visage to which we have become accustomed through the baleful tread of, say, Bernard Haitink’s recent performances, not least with this orchestra. And, at the end of a Bruckner-heavy tour, the LSO sounded well prepared for this unfamiliar angle of ascent upon the Ninth. The first movement set out without mystery but with a sure and purposeful tread, its disparate episodes linked by some finely drawn string legato. The Scherzo bullied its way in with an intoxicating swing like a night on the rough cider, and rolling timpani interventions unfamiliar from standard performances (having contributed to the finale, Cohrs made a source-led revision of the previous movements, with some instructive results) and the Trio scampered off like a Mendelssohnian fairy with a wicked glint in his eye. Harding did not go so far as those supposed slowcoaches Klemperer and Walter (as well as Sir Roger Norrington) as to impart a two-in-a-bar lilt to the Adagio, but he kept it songfully moving, with pathos left in reserve for the finale. He also had a fine ear for balance in a hall that does not take kindly to Bruckner.

Composing the Ninth under the sentence of death (heart disease aggravated by untreated diabetes), the gradually weakening Bruckner intended it to cap all that he had done. Quoting even more obsessively from the Te Deum than previous symphonies, the completed Ninth heads towards a thunderous restatement of that work’s final "Non confundar in aeternum": Let me never be confounded. If at times the cracks and joins in the surviving material seemed obvious, that may at least partly be due to lack of embedded familiarity with the symphony as a completed whole. It was, after all, composed by one who took pride in a personal language of dislocation, exemplified by the finales to the Third and Fifth symphonies. If the unresolved dissonances and gaping voids in the first three movements of the Ninth invite anachronistic comparisons with Webern, the completed finale draws the symphony back not into a more conservative harmonic world but one that makes perfected sense of the composer’s life and career. 

On the occasion of Harding conducting the almost-final completion, eight years ago with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cohrs remarked on the conductor’s "wonderful, intuitive understanding for this music". Just so. He also suggested the completed Ninth was a Credo for Bruckner, a final statement of unshakeable faith. Again without intending to court anachronism, that is not how it sounds. Bruckner composed a Credo-work with his last Mass, in F minor, and "Non confundar" has frequently been treated as a plea rather than a proclamation (by, for example, Berlioz at the end of his atheist Te Deum). The apocalyptic landscape of John Martin’s The End of the World seems nearer the mark. In the finale’s coda, it is only at the moment of seemingly irreversible catastrophe that D major is discovered and revealed. Given that it is this coda for which Bruckner left least material – none at all save the resolution itself – the team of SPCM deserves all the more credit, placing both them in the company of Deryck Cooke and the Ninth alongside Mahler's Tenth as a symphony which may now, with reason, be considered unsatisfactory without their work.

Every pugnacious attack from Pires made something happen in the outer movements

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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