Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall: Thursday Night
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Berlin Philharmonic and Bruckner's 9th (Complete)

12.2.24 Berlin Philharmonic Carnegie Hall Bruckner 9

"Dear God, please let me get well soon. You know I must have strength to finish the Ninth!" - Bruckner

In the orchestral repertoire, there has always been a special reverence for unfinished works: valedictory masterpieces left incomplete, often due to the composer's demise. In many cases - such as with Mozart's Requiem, Bartók's 3rd piano concerto, and Mahler's 10th symphony - these works were later completed by students and scholars, using a combination of sketches, notes, and their own imagination. 

For nearly a century, Bruckner's 9th symphony has been performed as a three-movement fragment, left unfinished like Schubert's 8th symphony. The prevailing wisdom has been that what Bruckner left of the 4th movement finale was too rough and scattered to reassemble into a coherent whole - and it would be more fitting at any rate to end with the poignant Adagio, Bruckner's "Farewell to Life."

We now know these assumptions couldn't be further from the truth. Since 1983, musicologists Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John Phillips and Benjamin-Cunnar Cohrs have pored over the substantial material Bruckner left at his death in 1896 to reconstruct the final movement. Of the 653 bars contained in the finale, only 28 - about two minutes of music - had to be composed from scratch. Indeed, Bruckner himself had orchestrated more than 200 bars. (You can hear an early version of their reconstruction on YouTube here.)

Why, then, has this music remained in the dark for so long? The answer, according to Simon Rattle (see video below), has to do with the "Bruckner Problem": the tendency of Bruckner's well-meaning disciples to take his music and smooth out the rough edges to make them more "digestible." When his disciples found the finale among his papers, they thought that Bruckner "had completely lost his mind," according to Rattle. "They said, 'It's too strange, it's too dissonant, this cannot be right.'"

Of course, it was absolutely what Bruckner had intended: the final, visionary statement of a composer peering into the realm beyond his own death. In truth, Bruckner's finale was no less strange than the final quartets of Beethoven, or the late paintings of Turner. It was meant to be heard.

Last night at Carnegie, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic made their case for the completed 9th symphony, performing it for the first time in the U.S. (They performed it in Berlin for the first time two weeks ago.) Of course, having one of the world's great orchestras perform this reconstruction is it's own validation; in Rattle's view, they were simply honoring Bruckner's original intentions.

From the outset, Rattle - who conducted without a score - employed broad tempi, drawing out the music for maximum effect while coaxing impossibly loud crescendi from the orchestra. Throughout the first movement, the string players were all in perfect unison, digging into their instruments with mad intensity. At the end of the movement, the timpani (played by Wieland Welzel) started with an almost indetectible hum, signaling the final coda with its furious trumpets and tubas, as if the Rapture were upon us. It was completely overwhelming: I was stunned, lost.

The second movement Scherzo started innocently enough, with its winds and pizzicato strings playing a delicate, pastoral theme. Which, less than a minute later is completely brutalized by staccato brass and timpani, pounding the strings into submission. It was like something out of Shostakovich: furious and unforgiving, with the orchestra gyrating like a huge, seething organism.

12.2.24 Berlin Philharmonic Carnegie Hall Bruckner 9 -1At first, the third movement Adagio seems to offer some reprieve from the darkness, with its tender strings and glowing Wagner tubas. But, before long, the rolling timpani and searing brass join forces in a fanfare of frightening intensity. Back and forth the music went, until finally Rattle exhorted the players to go for broke, strings and winds flying everywhere before crash landing on one of the harshest, most terrifying dissonances in all of music. Throughout, he kept the pace quicker than normal, refusing to milk the Adagio's pathos as if to telegraph there was still more to come.

Even so, it was strange not to hear applause after the soft, slow fade of the horns, so long familiar as the conclusion of this monumental symphony. But, after a pause, Rattle raised his baton and struck the downbeat for the finale, which was completely new to my ears. It started strangely, with dissonant chords and tempi that were all over the map. The music was clipped, restrained, as if someone were fumbling about in an unlit room. Finally, it came together with a loud, triumphant fanfare that reprised the central theme from the Adagio. 

The mystery of how to deal with the coda, for which almost no music was written, was resolved when Samale, Mazzuca, Phillips and Cohrs decided to follow Bruckner's standard blueprint by ending with all of the main themes from the preceding movements superimposed one on top of the other, ending with a final, major key chorale. According to Rattle, there was literally only one way that all of the themes could fit together, so that the ending "almost wrote itself."

As I sat there listening to the Berliners pour themselves into these final bars, I welled up with emotion. It was if they were saying: "We'll take it from here, Anton. Well done." A three-movement 9th will never sound the same again.

The full Berlin performance can be seen (for a fee) on the Berlin Philharmonic's website here. Other info available on Carnegie's website here. Back tonight for the final sold-out performance, featuring Hugo Wolf songs and Mahler's 2nd.

12.2.24 Berlin Philharmonic Carnegie Hall Bruckner 9 -2