Nézet-Séguin’s Unconvincing Substitute Finale to Bruckner’s Ninth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bruckner:  Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choirs/ Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London, 5.2.2012. (GD)  

Motet: Christus factus est
Symphony No 9 in D minor
Te Deum

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)

It is generally understood that Bruckner on his deathbed in 1896 sanctioned the Te Deum as a substitute finale to his Ninth Symphony in the event of his death (apparently he was working on the finale right up to his death). Although there is actually no documentary proof of this, it has become part of the Bruckner orthodoxy. But even if Bruckner did sanction this he probably did so tentatively. Bruckner, even near to death,  made compromises if there was a chance his works would be performed. It is surprising that this alleged Brucknerian compromise has not been performed more often.

Of course, certain conductors, mostly in the past, made a habit of this, notably Bruno Walter and Herbert Von Karajan. But I suppose in times of ‘austerity’ expense is a pressing factor? Also many would contend the the beautiful peace and serenity of the adagio’s coda constitute a very compelling ending as a kind of ‘farewell to life’.   But to crown the symphony with the Te Deum ( a work Bruckner admired greatly) is in many ways unsatisfactory as a compromise, and this in spite of the semblance of a quotation of the Te Deum’s ‘non confundar’ theme in the trumpets in the major at the beginning of the adagio , and also, of course, heard more resonantly in the great Adagio of the Seventh Symphony.

And this sense of being unsatisfactory was rammed home tonight when Nézet-Séguin unleashed the triumphant C major of the Te Deum, almost without a break, after the wonderful  calm halo of E major of the symphony’s coda, The Te Deum is firmly in C major which is basically incommensurable with D minor tonic of the symphony. We now know that Bruckner had all but finished the finale. But the almost finished score (similar to a piano reduction with instrumental headings and  only awaiting full orchestration which Bruckner would have completed in a few of weeks, had he lived) was somehow lost. It was either taken away by a collector, or lost in a quite quotidian manner. The surviving sketches give an idea ( if incomplete) of the texture and feel, of the finale.  The impression here is of a cross between the triumphant grandeur of the finale of the Eighth Symphony, and the contrapuntal monumentality of the Fifth. The American Bruckner scholar William Carragan has produced a very laudible performing version of the finale, and this seems to me a vastly better option than the tacking on of the Te Deum favoured by tonight’s conductor.

I reviewed a fine Bruckner Eight Nézet-Séguin gave with the LPO a couple of years ago, so tonight my expectations were high. But sadly this enormously gifted young conductor did not deliver the same integrated excellence of that earlier Bruckner rendition. Right from the opening Misterioso leading to the shattering fff unison D minor tutti I had the sense of the conductor imposing from without a loud tutti rather than, as with  greatest Bruckner conductors, the power of the statement  emerging from within the music. And the following lyrical second subject initially in A major did not flow as it should. Bruckner asks here for open, rich harmonies especially from the strings, but tonight the strings, especially the violins in the upper register, sounded recessed and strident. The rest of the movement did not unfold as it should. This was not helped by Nézet-Séguin’s atypical decision to deploy non-antiphonal violins.  There was little sense here of a musical narrative adventure. The central expanded statement of the great unison theme with spiralling ascending/descending string figurations sounded merely loud with less than perfect balance in the brass section; the horns strangely held back and not making their full antiphonal effect. The Brucknerian interlinking modalities which condition those terraced blocks of sound failed to register as they should. The first movement coda with its tonal shifts from D minor to E flat and the final exposure of the ‘archaic’ bare fifth were simply played with little of the sense of inevitability or discovery heard with say Harnoncourt and the VPO, and another recent (2010) LPO rendition with Gunther Herbig.

Many recent commentators have suggested that the second movement scherzo may represent the composer’s view of evil. Bruckner, no doubt, had a specific idea of evil to do with traditional Christian/Catholic definitions, but it is difficult to translate this into musical terms. Can music, outside of opera, ever intone something as morally/rhetoically charged as evil? This scherzo has a distinctly secular feel to it., and this applies despite the composer’s proposed dedication of the symphony to ‘dem lieben Gott’. Perhaps it is more accurate to see/hear a note of Mephistophelean irony here? It is certainly no joking matter as the word scherzo implies, but never far away from the ‘Walpurgisnacht’. Nézet-Séguin delivered a suitably menacing scherzo with its bludgeoning assaults of D minor. Occasionally the almost incessantly motoric rhythmic assault sounded more like organised noise. It could be argued that this brutal approach is more in keeping with the grim power of the music., but conductors like Klemperer and more recently Blomstedt have found more rhythmic/lyrical contrast and rhythmic accuracy here. Tonight the relentless and pounding timpani figure (not always pefectly tuned) obscured an essential clarity in the counterpoint between woodwinds and brass The fantastically fleet major mode themes in the trio were well projected, making a thankful contrast to the brutality of the scherzo.

The opening of the great adagio with its ascending chorale theme, chromatically straddling both major and minor, was well realised with trumpets in the major ringing through.  But after this promising opening I didn’t have the sense of the wide arching intervals in progression from D minor to D major, A flat and the concluding resolve in E major, cohering. Indeed the initial A flat theme tended to drag. Like Parsifal this movement is a model of the drama/intensity of slow music, but it should never sound merely slow. A subtending and solemn pulse is essential here which I didn’t hear tonight. Instead the conductor engaged in some rather awkward gear shifts,at the expense of the overall line and structural coherence of the movement. The final great dissonant climax did not really emerge from the inner structure of the music, sounding loud and strident rather than apocalyptic. Gauging this climax is no easy task for either conductor or orchestra, emerging as it does from seven different pitch-classes all more or less unified around D minor. The performance I heard  the same orchestra give with Gunther Herbig superbly managed this staggering symphonic traversal., and conductors like Blomstedt seem to register such structural complexities instinctively. The concluding gentle declensions to the closing resolve of E major, one of the most sublime moments in the entire symphonic literature, was played in a fairly accurate but rather perfunctory manner. I simply missed the calm glow of Bruckner’s stoic tranquillity, the sense of dying away, ‘the farewell to life’. I heard nothing of the sustained pp ppp, so carefully crafted in the score.

The Te Deum was given a big an bold rendition. The LPO Choir was solidly dependable. I didn’t always hear the Latin phrases clearly delineated when the choir was singing in tutti ff mode. But the dry acoustic of the Festival Hall is not particularly  kind to choral music. This unique music really needs to be played/sung in a cathedral as Bruckner intended. – ideally the St Florian Basilica in Upper Austria where Bruckner is buried. Also I needed to hear more brass accompaniment especially in the more complex contrapuntal sections like the ‘Aeterna fac cum’. The final ‘In Domine speravi’ was quite well managed, if a little loud at times, and the non confundar theme rang out triumphantly. The vocal ensemble sang quite well especially the soprano and mezzo. Franz-Josef Selig’s resonant bass sometimes obscured the lyrical tenor of Toby Spence, but again, as in the symphony, I had little sense of the Te Deum being traversed as a great ascending and resplendent statement of both faith and mastery of choral/orchestral form. Too often, as in the opening intonations of ‘Te Deum laudamus’, the phrasing and rhythmic structure sounded rather plodding,  four-square and loud. But as already alluded to, the loudness, even distortion at times, was more to do with severe acoustical restrictions of the Festival Hall.

The concert had opened with Bruckner’s 1884 motet Christus factus est. This beautiful motet, lasting only five minutes, has no particular relationship to the Ninth Symphony, although there are some allusions to the Te Deum and to the the composer’s Mass in E minor, especially the beautiful and chromatically charged dying away in the Kyrie. As in Bruckner’s other choral works the motet’s subtle chromatic shifts and harmonic turns correspond with a meticulous beauty to the liturgical text’s narration of part of the Passion of Christ.  Here Nézet-Séguin directed a well sung, unmannered and  touching rendition of this unique choral, spiritual statement.

Geoff Diggines