Attempted Completion of Bruckner’s Ninth is a Sad Let Down

18/12/2015

 Beethoven and Bruckner: Maria João Pires (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 16.12. 2015 (AS).

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 73
Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 in D minor (ed. Nowak and with “performing version” of unfinished finale by Samale-Philips-Cohrs-Mazzuca)

Maybe it’s not always fair to judge the conductor of a concerto performance, since he could merely be following the desires of the soloist. In any event Daniel Harding’s stolid performance of the concerto’s opening tutti formed a prelude to staid, lumpy solo playing from the soloist when she entered the fray. The mood was deadly serious, and the music just chugged along, almost metronomically, for the whole movement. It seemed that a great deal was being expended, but to little effect. Even the LSO’s excellent woodwind band sometimes sounded as if it was being dragged down into a sticky mire. There was a certain amount of expression in the cadenza, but only in a routine, generalised fashion.

Expression there certainly was in the slow movement, but it was of a hesitant kind, as if each note was being pondered over before delivery. A slow-motion effect was caused by this lack of flow – the notes were simply not joined up. The finale sounded a bit livelier, but the soloist still rather thumped out her part. Compared with Inon Bartanon’s performance of this work with conductor Alan Gilbert at Cadogan Hall three days before (review), this was a non-starter. As an encore Harding joined Pires at the keyboard for a piano duet version of “Solveig’s Song” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

Harding is conducting the LSO in three Bruckner symphonies this season, so he is obviously out to make his mark with this composer. His account of the Ninth Symphony started promisingly and blossomed satisfactorily. The music was well paced, well balanced, and structurally sound. There was plenty of expression and the LSO responded well to the conductor’s clear, unfussy direction. He didn’t dig deeply into the music as some maestros do and have done, and the great climax at the end of the first movement wasn’t so shattering as it can be. But Bruckner was well served here.

In the Scherzo, Harding adopted a slowish tempo, but it was effective because he made the music sound very strong rhythmically, and the trio sections, nicely shaped, provided effective contrast in mood and pace. In what should be the final slow movement, where Bruckner seems to be bidding a fond, nostalgic goodbye to the world, Harding excelled in moulding the music over its long span: it was a moving account of this most profound artistic statement, in which Bruckner perhaps reaches his greatest heights of expression. At the conclusion of this movement some members of the audience applauded, which seemed a surprise at first, given that there had been no previous end of movement clapping during the concert. But perhaps there was an ironic touch in their reaction, for this was not the three-movement Bruckner Nine as we know it, but one of the extant four-movement versions, one that has been recorded by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (review). In this version four individuals have worked together to create a finale based on Bruckner’s sketches for the movement.

Heard on this occasion (as on the recording) this so-called fourth movement emerged as a 20-minute-long, short-winded ragbag of disconnected rhetorical gestures. It proved what good judges have told us, that Bruckner’s surviving indications are insufficient to enable any kind of realistic construction to be made out of them.

After a splendid realisation of the first three movements it was a sad let down at the end of a long evening.

Alan Sanders

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