BRUCKNER:  Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Nowak edition).
Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.


To the list of memorable Bruckner Ninth performances on discs, add Claudio Abbado's, recorded live with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal during November 1996. It has the sonority in depth and nobility of tone that Vienna's premiere orchestra seems perennially able to summon when they respect their conductor. Abbado again is as admirable as he was in the Fourth Symphony, recorded six years earlier by the same D.G.G. producer, Christopher Adler, although with a different engineer and editor team in 1990. The Ninth, however, sounds more natural than any in the series to date (Symphony No. 1 came in between, but Abbado used a polyglot edition that I didn't keep). Like the Fourth, this one is Leopold Nowak's edition (there's never been another; Bruckner died before he wrote a finale).

In the past conductors occasionally have added the Te Deum, but the three completed movements have always been sufficient unto themselves: an opening movement marked ceremonial (Feirerlich) and misterioso; a throbbing, driving Scherzo with a headlong Trio, and an Adagio whose sorrowingly dissonant climaxes resolve slowly into consonance, absent the ecstasy Bruckner achieved in the slow movements of Symphonies 7 and 8.

What Abbado does—more than anyone else I've heard—is invoke a lyricism in the composer's first and third movement theme-groups that relax the mature Bruckner's solemn muse. To call this Italianate would be a cliche, yet there is Mediterranean warmth in Abbado's music-making, without slighting the power or seriousness of Bruckner's utterance. I'm not giving up Stanislaw Skrowaczewski's outstanding perception and clarity with the Minneapolis Orchestra on a luminous Reference Recording made the same month as Abbado's, but released in 1997. The two views are respectively valid, with impeccable credentials, in this musical equivalent of the Washington D.C. Cathedral -- that is to say, never completed. The biggest tempo difference comes in the opening movement: Skrowczewski's 22:54 vs. Abbado's 25:05. Thereafter Abbado is quicker - by eight seconds in the Scherzo (10:06), and by 1:08 in the finale (25:13 vs. SS's 26:22).

RefRec 81 is the more transparently recorded, but Abbado never permitted the Wiener Philharmoniker's inherent tonal weight to sound blowsy or pompous, nor did producer Adler and his control-room colleagues. Their Ninth is, in fact, the first D.G.G. disk from Vienna in a long time that has not sounded artificially enhanced -- in other words, not a post-facto remix of too many inputs but a genuinely "live" performance.  Bravo, Hamburg.

R.D. (Aug. 2001)