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CD Review

Anton Bruckner

London 455506

Symphony #9

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
London 455506-2
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"For normal men, time is what occurs after the beginning; for Bruckner time is what occurs after the end. - Sergiu Celidibache (quoted in a 1996 biography)

I've been doing a lot of Bruckner of late. I just finished reviews of the 2nd and 6th on Naxos. (Great performances they are, too!!) Now this, and it's all a bit too much of a good thing. This experience is crowning one. As I listened to this, and Bruno Walter's recording, I kept muttering scatological explications and shaking my head. In a nutshell, Chailly's Bruckner is more Arthurian to Walter's Wagnerian. Now, if you can tell me what the hell that means, let me know. It is what came out of my pen, however. I will attempt an explanation.

Before I forget it, however, let me talk about the sound. The last two Chailly/RCO recordings I've gotten have had some of the finest sound I've heard since Stokowski. This recording, and a previous Mahler 5, produces detail, firm, realistic bass and climaxes that will leave you shaking. This contributes to the effect greatly. The sound, alone, is not what "makes" these recordings for me, but it certainly is an important factor. You won't hear a better Bruckner 9th than this.

One of the things I have enjoyed while doing this review is the chance to re-visit Bruckner's 9th. It'd been awhile. At a point, I realized was going through a moment of punctuated equilibrium. Suddenly, Bruckner was making sense to me, he wasn't just spinning the same notes and melodies ad nauseum. It was like when Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" suddenly 'made sense'. A new state of awareness had been achieved, and the skies would never look the same again, Bruckner would never sound the same again.

Bruckner takes time. If you are not willing to take the time, you will not understand him. The opening quote is a good indication of what I mean. If you take the time, your patience will be rewarded. It is lik having looked at a field of flowers for years, noticing only sameness, and now you realize the differences in the field. It is dazzling. One of the things I came to appreciate was thanks to Steinberg's book. Describing one of Bruckner's 'fingerprints' he says, "Bruckner's favorite method of getting from one thing to the next, and one that earned him much digression on the part of the Brahmsians, is simply to stop, take a breath, and move on." (p. 124) Listen to how Chailly handles those moments, it is stunning or delightful as the occasion requires, like just before the orchestral explosion in the beginning.

As a part of the process I listened to parts and wholes of the work by Giulini, Walter, and Schuricht in addition to this one. (I saved the Furtwängler for after all of those and this was put to bed) They are all damn good and I am glad I don't have to be without any of them. I really think that this is one of those pieces of music you ought to hav multiple recordings of. (What did Churchill say about those 'ofs' at ends?) I will take just a moment here to comment on the Giulini and Schuricht (both with the VPO by the by). Giulini's is devastating. He handles the orchestral explosion into D such that it seems longer than any of them, but Chailly's is almost the same duration. Giulini 'milks it, and all of the music, for all its worth. You may find his tempi sluggish, but I don't. Schuricht is not quite as weighty, but just listen to the phrasing of the oboe in the opening. It brings to mind the saying, "God is in the details" (though I've also heard that the devil is). The moments are there and, while I will be less likely to turn to it than the others, I am glad I can if I wish to.

Now, to the Walter for a more direct comparison. Part of me wanted to be able to say thatI have a distinct preference for Walter. I am reall stunned by the elemental force in his stereo recording. On the other hand, the Chailly is absolutely involving. My notes while listening to the Chailly returned to the Arthurian analogy more than once. Listenin to the symphony for the umpteenth time, I wrote, "What we need is an animated, Arthurian ballet to go with this aural experience." And this is not really a digression. Anyway, Walter's explosion of the piece into the key of D, in the first movement, is so elemental it shakes my soul. One way he achieves this is to pause just a nanosecond longer than Chailly, then the recording/balance of the performance emphasizes the timpani so that it kicks my shit. (Sorry, a phrase I picked up fro my jazz friends) On the other hand, Chailly's recording is so natural that at times I wondered if I needed to shut down the stereo because I heard thunder. The pizzicato in the strings in Chailly's recording is so delicate you'd swear that there were harps being used, but none are called for by the composer. The fourth movement, when the orchestra sounds like it's trying to swim upstream against itself, here Chailly makes this sound almost existential. I got frustrated making notes of minutia. I know what I am feeling and I know that minute details here and there are a part of the gestalt. Still, it is a gestalt and going over details misses the point.

This recording is one of my favorites. It is different from Walter's. On the other hand, every recording I listened to was different. Perhap Bruckner is one of those composers whose music can accept different opinions and still survive. Each recording is a different, but still spiritual experience.

In a recent thread on the classical forum I watch, the question was posed, 'How is it possible that an atheist can have a spiritual experience?' Anyone who listens to this recording will know the answer to that question.

The relevance of [Bruckner's great art today] is perhaps due to the fact that it directs our awareness towards the sphere of the absolute, forcing us to abandon the usual historical methods which, in the fullest sense of the word, 'encumber' modern man's direct communication with the art of the past…Bruckner did not work for the present; in his art he thought only of eternity and he created for eternity.
- Furtwängler, as quoted in Steinberg's book (p.96)
before the German Bruckner Society, 1939

Post Script: Oh, yeah, the Berg. In a recent review of Rachmaninoff's Symphony #3 I got so carried away with discussing the recording of the symphony that I forgot to mention the Vocalise in the review. No one would buy this disc for the Berg alone. It is a nice lagniappe, but it ain't Stokowski.

*My thanks to Gene Halaburt for providing me with a translation of the Celidibache quote.

Copyright © 1998, Robert Stumpf II

Trumpet