As a photograph in the booklet testifies, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the US premiere of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, on 19 and 20 February 1904 conducted by Theodore Thomas. As was the tradition of the time, the generous programme included the Symphony in the first half, flanked by Gluck’s Alceste Overture as well as an aria from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito beforehand, followed by Schubert’s ‘Die Allmacht’ (presumably D852, with Mme Ernestine Schumann-Heink as vocal soloist). After the interval there was a whistle-stop tour of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle with orchestral excerpts.
The frontispiece of that 1904 programme includes a warning to the audience: “NOTE – On account of numerous complaints which have reached the office, the management requests the ladies to observe the city ordinance by removing their hats. Ushers have been instructed to direct attention to the foregoing.”
This account of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (in the unfinished three-movement version) was recorded during the orchestra’s one-hundred-and twenty-fifth season. While Riccardo Muti has only previously commercially recorded Bruckner’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies (with the Berliner Philharmoniker for EMI), since taking up the position as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony he has been building a Bruckner cycle, with the First, Second, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies now joined by this Ninth – the first to be issued on the CSO Resound label. It is imposing stuff from an ensemble that has had notable Brucknerians at its helm – Giulini, Solti, Haitink and Barenboim to list just the most recent.
The opening, low-string tremolandos have ominous presence with the ensuing horn semiquaver upbeats cleanly taken. On first hearing Muti’s slight increase in pace (unmarked) around figure A seemed unidiomatic, and I feared it might ingrain itself as an annoying tick on repeated listening, but it has not; it makes sense in Muti’s constant ebb and flow that allows both Bruckner’s music and his Chicago musicians to breathe. This nuanced approach feels naturally dramatic; slow, surging string passages full of nostalgic ennui being dragged forward with magnificent brass motifs one after another. There is a natural bloom to the sound, accommodating the largest climax but best appreciated with the resonance given to pizzicatos. The sense of cataclysm, unresolved in the first movement’s final crescendo is shattering.
The piano wind chords and pizzicatos of the Scherzo only offer light relief for forty bars, before the horns and trombones stamp out a typical Bruckner rhythm and the dramatic struggle continues, although the faster Trio manages to offer slightly longer haven, with its upward string pattern matched by the mellower violin and solo oboe passages. The cellos at figure D are radiant in the central section, signalling the return to the opening of the Trio, but all-too soon the Scherzo is reprised and the brass’s battering rhythm.
I would have favoured an extra couple of seconds before the anguished swooping violin entry of the slow movement – essaying a Parsifal-like attempt at salvation, gradually getting higher – but I can see the point of keeping the thread of tension. The repeated brass semiquavers and chords lead to the glorious Wagner tuba passage from which henceforth Muti manages the intercutting of themes and instrumental blocks with assured care. With woodwind solos well balanced against the brass and massed strings, there’s also a crunching quality where needed: try letter K (at 14’19”), the first-violins biting into their strings with an almost tangible crackle, or the discordant climax at letter R (up to 20’47”) and the stunned silence that’s like a black-hole after. This is the point where Bruckner begins to lead us inexorably towards his most magical coda, finding a resolution amidst the brass (excluding trumpets) and pizzicatos that might have seemed impossible at R’s crunching chord. The recording omits applause.
Amongst his Chicago Symphony rivals, Muti stands at a mid-point – both Barenboim (60’33”) and Solti (61) are shorter than Muti’s overall timing, whereas Giulini’s 1976 Medinah Temple version comes in at just over 63. Interestingly of the four, only Muti produces a slow movement shorter than the first, but there’s no sense of haste – the music speaks utterly naturally.
Packaged within a boldly designed glowing livery (marking a departure from previous white-background designs for CSO Resound), this marks a distinguished and satisfying addition to the Bruckner recorded legacy, with hopefully more to come from Muti’s Chicago cycle: hats off, indeed.