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Blu-ray Review

Anton Bruckner

Symphony #9 in D minor (Original Version)

Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
Accentus Music Blu-ray ACC102179 65:59 PCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
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Also available on DVD ACC202179:
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Daniel Barenboim is a well-known and highly-respected Brucknerian. He has already recorded two cycles of the Bruckner symphonies, the first with the Chicago Symphony on DG and the second with the Berlin Philharmonic on Warner Classics. This series on Accentus Music is billed as the "mature symphonies" of Bruckner, and thus takes in symphonies 4-9. This is the last issue in the project, the others having been released in 2013 and 2014. I missed them and that is genuinely regrettable: not only have reviews been very positive, but the success of this Ninth suggests that the whole project is of major importance, bidding to become reference recordings in the video realm.

Bruckner's symphonies allow for relatively few interpretive vantage points: a conductor can't lighten the music much, can't effectively adopt tempo extremes in search of some new or historically correct approach, and can't break away from the plentiful lush sostenuto writing in favor of a crisper sound without simply ruining the music. The Ninth is especially vulnerable to wrong-headed approaches: indeed, in a symphony dedicated to "the beloved God" and whose third movement was described by the composer as a "farewell to life", it's hard to seek out humor or lightness, romantic passion or sensuality, or some hidden message beneath the religiosity and palliative demeanor. In short, in this work, and in most other Bruckner symphonies, even mild interpretive eccentricity rarely works. So, the challenge is to present the music in a reasonably straightforward and centrist way without sounding stale or lacking in spirit.

Barenboim hits the target here, infusing the music with a fervent yet stately passion and conveying an uplifting sense amid the storms and valedictory moments. His tempos are moderate to slightly brisk, and the music always flows with a sense of forward motion, never flagging or bogging down. (Note: the timing in heading includes applause and credits – the performance runs slightly under an hour.) The first movement builds from the beginning with a sense of both mystery and nobility. The orchestra plays with total commitment and accuracy here and throughout the symphony. In the second movement they really dig in, conveying the stormy, driven nature of the music with grit and spirit. Barenboim deftly points up the elements of angst in the more relaxed music of the trio, one moment suggesting an almost playful character and the next turning anxious or dark. The third movement, probably the hardest to bring off effectively, alternates between angst-filled tension and lush consolation here: the troubled music from the opening seems to suggest impending death but leads to what must be the consolation the composer sees after death. The playing is totally committed here and Barenboim doesn't overplay his hand, pointing up relevant detail and phrasing the music with a balance of intelligence and feeling, and allowing the music to speak for itself without excessive italics.

The verdict here then is that Barenboim delivers an excellent performance of this unfinished masterpiece to rank with the finest versions I know of from Bernstein, Jochum, Wand, and Tintner, whose entire set I reviewed here in 2002 (Naxos White Box 8.501101). This new Barenboim performance also features excellent sound reproduction, picture clarity and camera work. All in all, this is a splendid issue.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings