Rattle premieres the latest edition of Bruckner’s unfinished symphony
Anton Bruckner spent the last decade of his life toiling over his Ninth Symphony, a work that was to remain incomplete at the time of his death.
On February 7, over a century after the 1903 premiere of the work’s first three movements, the Berlin Philharmonic and its music director Sir Simon Rattle performed the work with a newly reconstructed finale.
Bruckner’s Ninth has suffered a curious fate. Its first posthumous edition in 1903 was prepared by the composer’s disciple Ferdinand Löwe, who streamlined the incomplete score and smoothed its rough edges. The manuscript of the first three movements was only uncovered in 1932 by Siegmund von Hausegger, who became the first conductor to record the work six years later with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
Since the discovery in the 1980s of sketches for a fourth movement (the evidence in existence totals 180 pages ranging from drafts to fully orchestrated material), multiple attempts have been made to render as complete a performing version as possible. In 2002, Nikolaus Harnoncourt performed a new critical edition with the Vienna Philharmonic that included a torso of the finale prepared by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs. The 2012 reconstruction of the finale, by Cohrs, Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca and John A Phillips, brings to an end a quarter century of musical sleuthing.
In an interview for the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall given to Gramophone ahead of its broadcast, Sir Simon expressed his faith in the newly assembled four-movement version and begged audiences to be receptive to the new material. ‘There’s a kind of myth that there are only sketches left of the last movement. In fact, there was really an emerging full score, complete almost to the end,’ Rattle said, adding that Bruckner was writing in his most radical, forward-looking style in the Ninth, especially in the finale.
To help listeners understand just how ‘complete’ the finale actually was at the time of Bruckner’s death, Rattle compared the composer to an architect designing a cathedral. Indeed, Bruckner had the rather unique composition method of deciding how long his movements should be and then putting all the bars on the manuscript, numbered and with phrase lengths, even before writing the first note. ‘So actually, even when there are some empty pages, we know exactly how many bars there were and what kind of phrases there were,’ concluded Rattle, explaining how much of the manuscript evidence was strewn throughout various collections. He also said that had the composer lived another two months, the finale would have been complete.
Speaking to Gramophone before the concert, Cohrs, who is also co-editor of the Bruckner Complete Edition, Vienna, explained how his team came up with an entirely new conception of the finale coda, based on comparing Bruckner’s composition technique in earlier symphonies, specifically the Second and the Eighth. ‘The most important change is that we decided to take out an earlier sudden pianissimo and crescendo, 16 bars, that really took all the energy off, and interrupted when it wanted to go to the peak. There must be a continuous spark from the beginning of the chorale recapitulation up to the end of the coda. To make that convincing is the real crucial task in our reconstruction,’ he explained.
Cohrs believes that Bruckner probably wouldn’t have revised the symphony very much had he lived longer. ‘Because it was such a long process of composition, he actually revised within the composing process,’ he said.
Rattle and his orchestra will bring this Bruckner 9 redux to Carnegie Hall later this month, on February 24. The conductor is keen that listeners accustomed to the three-movement version are receptive to a finale that brings the work closer to ‘Bruckner’s real conception of his last, final masterpiece’. Continued Rattle: ‘What a joy for us to be playing for the first time a whole new symphonic movement by Bruckner, late Bruckner and vintage, wonderful Bruckner.’
A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based contributor to Gramophone. His articles on classical music have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, WSJ Europe, Opera News Magazine and the Forward.