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The Boston Phoenix Apocalypse Now

Anton Bruckner's Last Judgment Ninth Symphony

By Jeffrey Gantz

JULY 19, 1999:  If there's one consolation in Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony -- and Mahler's late symphonies are all about consolation -- it's the presence of the composer himself, Virgil to your Dante, as you survey the nether emotional regions of death, desolation, and despair. Then there's Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, which for all that it's dedicated to "the dear God" strands us in the vibrating cosmos.

This gigantic work -- its fourth and final movement just sketches at the composer's death, in 1896 -- continues to mesmerize record labels: where a dozen years ago there were only seven recordings in the catalogue, there are now, in the decade of Nirvana and hip-hop, 32 (with many more temporarily out of print). It's the classical conductor's mandate to conquer the universe. The latest explorers to boldly go are the late Sergiu Celibidache, whose Zen Bud-dhist-like Munich Philharmonic recordings of Bruckner have finally been issued in America, by EMI, and Giuseppe Sinopoli, Mr. Symphonic Deconstruction, who weighs in with the Staatskapelle Dresden on a new Deutsche Grammophon release.

If Mahler's symphonies read like a novel, or a play, Bruckner's read like architecture. By reputation, this Austrian composer was a simple soul with no social graces and a childlike faith in God -- yet by Symphony No. 3 he has no problem layering a polka on top of a funeral march. His early works rise like Gothic cathedrals, hewn out of rock and angel, but with quirky, quarky, gargoyle-like details. The later symphonies resemble Caspar David Friedrich's ruined churches, their ambulatories overgrown, their spires soaring into a God-forsaken sky. The Ninth, like Le Corbusier's pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ron-champ, inverts the Gothic proportions of mass and space, undermining tonality and every other received notion of how a symphony should sound. It's music for the millennium.

Mahler's Ninth begins with a heartbeat motif; Bruckner's Ninth, like Beethoven's, opens on a string tremolo, the oscillation of the quantum universe. And like Beethoven's Ninth, Bruckner's announces itself in D minor -- but by bar 19 the horns are surging up to E-flat, the key of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Emperor Concerto, the opening of Wagner's Rheingold, the conclusion of Mahler's Second (Resurrection) and Eighth Symphonies, the key of Bruckner's own heroic/romantic Fourth Symphony. The first subject group alone has eight elements (as Derek Watson points out, "There are more things of heaven and earth than were ever dreamt of in any other first-subject group"), climaxing with three tremendous octave crashes into the Pit, the last of which drops from E-flat to a momentary D before recovering to E-flat. Rescue arrives via the lulling cradle song of the A-major second subject, but the underpinning seven-note ostinato (from the same root as "obstinate") in the second violins betrays the composer's counting mania. The third subject, back in D minor, finds the first violins obsessing over D while an ominous descending ostinato develops in the clarinets and troubling harmonic vistas unfold.

After expounding their themes, symphonic composers from Mozart and Beethoven to Mahler and Sibelius develop them. Not Bruckner. His hymn-like melodies resist the dissecting instrument ("What God hath joined, let no man put asunder"); what they invite is harmonic exploration. So instead of development, we get a counterstatement where the original themes appear in new and increasingly alarming colors, seeking, like T.S. Eliot, "to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." It's like looking at a painting by Bosch or Brueghel where devils keep popping up; the cacophonous climax finds the first violins clinging to a stratospheric B-flat while the horns and violas get claustrophobic. The coda begins with an ominous drumroll and a mist of anarchic mutterings that clear to reveal Bruckner's dark angels processing through the thorn trees. Last Judgment hysteria mounts in the string ostinatos while the trumpets obsess on E, and as the orchestra subsides into a mock-triumphant D minor, the trumpets try to lift it into E-flat, their outbursts heroically, horrifically, failing as the orchestra drags them down like the devils that carry off Marlowe's Faust.

The jackhammer Scherzo -- also in D minor, but the second violins lead another nasty, dissonant revolt with their insistent D-flat -- is "relieved" by a Trio that slithers about the Garden with its poisoned apple; you can get nauseated just listening. The Adagio, straight out of Friedrich's Arctic Shipwreck, opens on an upward-leaping ninth that withholds the security of a home key. Conventional religious consolation is offered by the A-flat (the key of Parsifal) second subject, but the movement persists in its lonely pilgrimage through icy wastes to an illusory oasis that looks ahead to The Ten Commandments (you can practically hear Cecil B. DeMille intoning, "And Moses dwelt among the shepherds of Midian . . . ") and then a chromatic nightmare (seven of the 12 notes of that scale fused in a single death's-head chord) before reaching a humpback-whale-soothing E major via allusions to Bruckner's own D-minor Mass (the Miserere) and Eighth (the Adagio) and Seventh (the opening subject) Symphonies and a premonition of the Mary Tyler Moore theme.

Performance in Bruckner symphonies has gotten slower and slower as conductors, like congressmen, try to substitute length for logos. This trend has been put down to the Nazis' glorification of Bruckner, but in fact the 1938 recording of the Ninth by Siegmund von Hausegger and the Munich Philharmonic -- the earliest recording we have -- zips by in just 55 minutes, and through the '50s Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, and Hans Knappertsbusch regularly clocked in under that mark; not till Zubin Mehta in 1965 did a recording exceed one hour. Now that's the norm: Sinopoli and Jesús López-Cobos take 62 minutes, Daniel Barenboim, Günter Wand, and Riccardo Chailly 63, Jeffrey Tate 66, Jany Renz 67. Leonard Bernstein needed 61 the first time, 66 the second; Carlo Maria Giulini went from 63 to 68. Celibidache's two bootleg recordings check in at 58 and 63 minutes; his EMI performance runs, yes, 78.

Longer is, alas, not always better. Certainly Bruckner's complex sound picture needs room to unfold, but it operates in a sophisticated spacetime (Anton didn't need Albert to tell him about relativity), and when you take away the time -- and the mortality -- his symphonies just get lost in space. I expected Giuseppe Sinopoli's reading to stress Bruckner's manic-depressive nature (this conductor has a degree in psychiatry, after all), but it emotes rather than explores. The initial slow tempo causes the composer's kinetic rhythms to flatten out, and when the second subject arrives, it can hardly get slower, as Bruckner's "langsamer" indicates it should. Histrionics mar the close of both second and third subjects; transitions are flat-footedly literal (try the one between second and third subjects starting at bar 153; 7:14); and Sinopoli sprints into the (otherwise well-judged) coda as if he were meeting a date, not his Maker.

The Trio of the Scherzo is a little square, and the Adagio is heavy and literal, with a cataclysm that's powerful but not ugly. Sinopoli isn't helped by Deutsche Grammophon's bright, shallow sound, which robs the horns of air at the end of the first movement's exposition (bar 219; 10:22) and may be responsible for the lack of contrast in the call-and-response for first violins (bars 51-54; 2:09). The symphony is beautifully played, just not beautifully thought out by a conductor who hasn't spent as much time as the composer did listening to Satan in the desert.

Time is also the nemesis of Sergiu Celibidache, whose EMI Bruckner moves with glacial speed. As his son Serge explains in the liner booklet, these live-concert recordings (Sym-phonies 3 through 9 plus the F-minor Mass), would not have been authorized by his late father, who believed that any recording was a falsification of three-dimensional reality; they've been issued to forestall pirates, to preserve the Romanian conductor's memory, and to raise money for a musical and a humanitarian foundation. Serge intelligently points out that the "epiphenomena" of notes to which his father was so sensitive get lost even in excellent recordings: we hear less than what existed in the recording studio or concert hall, and consequently "the tempo on the CD always feels 'too slow.' " Having witnessed Celibidache conduct in Symphony Hall some 10 years ago, I can attest to having heard things I've never heard on any recording.

But on CD, at least, this 1995 Ninth is too slow, time suspended, sound surrounded -- light that's all particle and no wave. And despite Serge's extenuations, the beginning of the Adagio seems suspect: after the first voice-in-the-wilderness climax (bar 29; 3:30), the horns' phrasing starts to come unstuck; and when the second theme, marked "sehr langsam," arrives (bar 45; 5:50), the tempo is already so measured that there's no way Celibidache can slow it further. What's missing everywhere is eschatological ecstasy (like the God-touching-Adam explosion at bar 322 of No. 4's finale, or the Maestoso's seraphic third theme in No. 6). The Scherzo, at 13:47 instead of the usual 10 to 11 minutes, is a revelation, juggernaut instead of jackhammer. Otherwise, time hangs heavy on this recording.

EMI has appended a rehearsal section that finds a plaintive yet appreciative conductor clarifying textures but not always enlightening the listener. (At the outset of the Adagio: "Yes, find but not seek. Not as it says in the Bible. He who seeks shall not find. But what's dead certain is: he who finds does not seek.") The liner booklet provides a complete translation, but you'll need enough German to link the English text to the orchestral passages. The catch is that even at 78 minutes, the symphony would have fit on a single CD; the 34 minutes of rehearsal runs it to two -- no small matter when EMI's double-CD Celibidache sets are going for $34 or so.

For that kind of money, you could expect the fourth movement. Bruckner left some 200 pages of drafts, but he never saw the movement whole the way Mahler did his Tenth: some parts are barely sketched, and there's no coda, so any attempt at a performing version has to be a dodgy proposition. Three of those attempts have been recorded: William Carragan by Yoav Talmi and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos, 1985); Nicola Samale/Giuseppe Maz-zucca by Eliahu Inbal and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (Tel-dec, 1986); and Samale/John A. Phillips/Mazzucca/Gunnar Cohrs by Kurt Eichhorn and the Linz Bruckner Orchestra (Camerata, 1993). All share a syncopated first-subject group and a richly robed chorale theme that descends into sackcloth. Eichhorn's performance is long on roses, short on thorns; stretched to half an hour it out-adagios the Adagio. At the moment it's available only as part of Camerata's excellent complete Bruckner set.

At considerably faster tempos, the Inbal/Frankfurt performance (78 minutes to Eichhorn's 93) just fits on a single budget CD; this version's coda, like Eichhorn's, brings back ideas from the first movement before ending simply with a rising brass figure that recalls the end of the Adagio. Carragan's coda, on the other hand, melds syncopation and chorale in a giddy gloria, with the trumpets blazing a darkly exalted D major to the imagined corners of God's creation. At 82 minutes, the Talmi/Oslo performance spreads onto two CDs; all the same it's a bargain, since it sells for the price of one and includes a bonus 16-minute recording of Bruckner's actual sketches.

Celibidache's unique view of Bruckner can be investigated more economically on his one-disc Fourth or Sixth; his Ninth is for collectors and experts. As for Sinopoli's, it sounds callow next to Riccardo Chailly's natural, idiomatic performance (Decca, 1996). Still towering over all are the Ninths of Wilhelm Furtwängler (Music & Arts, 1944), Herbert von Karajan (DG, 1966 preferred to 1975), and especially Otto Klemperer (EMI, 1970), recordings that suggest their older, tougher generation had a better handle on the new millennium.


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