Anton Bruckner, Symphony No.9 (with new reconstruction of the Finale)
In what was a long and demanding programme for any orchestra, the Fulham Symphony Orchestra's enterprising concert showcased the first UK performance of the New Critical Edition of Bruckner's Finale for his Ninth symphony, revised in 2004/5. The question of completions, and especially that for Bruckner's Ninth, always raises issues that go beyond the simply musicological. Reconstructions of Mahler's Tenth and Elgar's Third (not to mention Act III of Berg's Lulu and Mozart's Requiem ) have their supporters and detractors, but with Bruckner the Finale of his last, and incomplete, symphony has been much less taken up by conductors.
Musically, at least, some conductors have chosen to ‘complete' Bruckner's Ninth by appending the Te Deum to the third movement's Adagio. Bernard Haitink recently conducted a performance where the Te Deum appeared before the symphony began, thus reiterating starkly the D minor uncertainty of the work more prominently than is usual. Karajan and others append the Te Deum to the Adagio, and bring the work in structure and substance closer to Beethoven's Ninth. Yet, there is nothing remotely authentic about this approach – it first having been played this way by Ferdinand Löwe who did not appreciate the stylistic discrepancies between the symphony itself and the Te Deum .
And yet, much of Bruckner's Finale remains in near complete form. Of the 665 bars in the New Edition, 554 are by Bruckner himself, from either the definitive or primary score stages, with a smaller number coming from the continuity draft. Less than five minutes of music in this 24 minute movement is constructed without reference to a direct Brucknerian model. Musically, this performance persuaded one that the completion is viable, and moreover that Bruckner's Finale acts on a much larger scale than the celebrated Coda of the Eighth in bringing together the work's preceding three movements into an integrated and understandable context.
The powerful opening bars of the Finale, which stride heroically towards the second theme, embrace the widest spectrum of the chromatic scale and the skeletal, almost barren second theme offers an unusually original Brucknerian model that steers away from the usual course of lush harmony Bruckner had conceived in earlier symphonies. It is with the emergence of the magnificent third theme, however, that the movement takes overtly from the symphony's sublime Adagio. With both the climax of the Adagio and the coda of the first movement recalled before the symphony's final pedal point and a 37 measure crescendo that corresponds to the structural units of each of the symphony's preceding movements Bruckner's Ninth culminates in a blazing world of affirmation.
The Fulham Symphony players – perhaps not ideally heard in the acoustic of Fulham Town Hall, even though orchestral parts were reduced accordingly – gave a pointed and well-crafted performance that scaled both the symphony's climaxes and the overall trajectory of its development. Similarly defined playing had been mirrored in both the Adagio and the solemn first movement; only the persistent tread of the Scherzo disappointed in playing that disintegrated into an indistinct mesh of vague pointing and fumbled phrasing. Impressive was conductor Marc Dooley's grip over the work's structure, an antithesis to some less heroically and less singular performances of this symphony I have heard over the past year.
While Bruckner's Ninth took up the second half of this concert, the first was devoted to Wagner's Prelude to Parsifal and the world premiere of Stephen Hicks' Die Gralsglocken. Mr Dooley's expert grip over the long, still world that is the opening to Wagner's Grail opera displayed a very fine measure of the prelude's conceptual lines. Both the Dresden Amen and the epic brass chorales were splendidly conceived in a performance that proved wholly gripping. The playing – if not faultless – had considerable refinement to it – especially from the brass – and Marc Dooley's deliberate but balanced tempi showed an innate understanding of Wagner's magical and prayerful sonic world. Stephen Hicks' Die Gralsglocken (or The Grail Bells ) inhabits a quasi-Wagnerian sound world, one that depicts stillness and silence in equal measure. If not wholly imitating the powerful yet measured climaxes of Bruckner, Hicks' score dissolves effortlessly into the dual worlds of Romanticism and deconstructionism. Brass fanfares and distilled string glissandi merge happily in a work that recalls in its contemporary language the simplicity of works like Howard Skempton's Lento .
© Peter Grahame Woolf