How often are we told that Bruckner wrote Nine Symphonies (the Finale of the last of them left unfinished at his death). Well, including (as they must be) the unnumbered F-minor and D-minor examples, the minimum base is eleven, to which add on various re-writes of certain Symphonies and then different editing (from, say, Haas and Nowak of yesteryear to Carragan and Cohrs today) and you have a minefield of publications – at least twenty Symphonies.
Here are those numerical bookends, in outstanding performances led by Claudio Abbado, recorded with a excellent tonmeister’s fine ear for perspective, tonal fidelity and good balance.
As a complement to his decades-old Decca recording of the ‘Linz’ score of Symphony 1 (with Wiener Philharmoniker for Decca), Abbado here switches to the ‘Vienna’ revision, heavier and overly-detailed as it is (and time-consuming for the composer at a period when he possibly would have been able to complete #9 had it not been for this extra self-imposed labour).
While ‘Linz’ remains preferable, Abbado and Lucerne’s account of ‘Vienna’ is simply stunning – propulsive, majestic, glorious-sounding, and superbly played, opening with a first movement that is athletic and momentous – for all Bruckner’s ‘mature’ re-think regarding detail Abbado ensures that this remains young man’s music. Following the thrilling Allegro, the subsequent Adagio is darkly expressive with Parsifal-like amplitude to fortissimos. And with a fiery Scherzo, a summery pastoral Trio, and a Finale, here launched attacca, that retains earlier impetus and introduces lyrical contrasts from Bruckner’s inner sanctum (it is also the longest movement of the four, there being much to resolve, the conflict of private and public, for which the conclusion resounds triumphantly), this is a reading to treasure.
So too that of the Ninth, which turned out to be the final time Abbado would stand in front of an orchestra (he died the following year). Whether he, or anyone around him, knew this is uncertain, although his serious illness was no secret.
Without indulgence, exaggeration or any sort of self-pity, Abbado gives us Bruckner’s Bruckner IX (the three movements that he left; others have completed the Finale). Abbado’s is the art that conceals art, tempos and transitions perfectly judged across the whole, dynamics scrupulous, blend judicious, the players dedicated to their conductor and he to the music – everything belongs and is inevitable – the secret being to trust what Bruckner wrote: a strange, fearful and cosmic first movement; a juggernaut of a Scherzo (its craggy rhythms hammered out at pace here) and a macabre spectral Trio; and finally (if not intended as such) an Adagio that is consciously a “farewell to life” and which climaxes in gut-wrenching and dissonant terms, with a ‘where next?’ envoi. Silence.
Whatever the level of preparation, the end result here is something that happened on two nights in Lucerne: Abbado conducted Bruckner, and it’s a very special experience.