BRUCKNER Symphony No 9
From Claudio Abbado to Günter Wand, this greatest of all unfinished masterpieces has repeatedly appealed to great conductors nearing the end of their careers, not all of them ‘natural’ Brucknerians. The Ninth was also the last piece Leonard Bernstein prepared with his beloved Vienna Philharmonic. In this regard Bernard Haitink’s credentials are unmatched. His first recording of the work, set down in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in December 1965, was initially reviewed as long ago as October 1966 when Deryck Cooke thought it the best version then available. While one hopes the octogenarian maestro will enjoy many more years of distinguished music-making, this latest rendering is nothing if not realistic about the prospects. Where other interpreters soften Bruckner’s vision, Haitink is uncompromisingly architectural, no texture self-consciously beautified, no transition rendered falsely emotive, little reassurance offered except in passing. Whatever the tempo, his conducting continues to impress by virtue of its firm sense of line. And in Bruckner’s leave-taking above all there is no mistaking the finality of the destination.
Granted, there is now another school of thought. Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Sir Simon Rattle hold that the score can no longer be considered spiritually complete with its slow movement a necessary and compelling end point, finding sufficient continuity in what survives of the finale to prompt a rethink about the tone and style of what comes before. That might imply a lighter touch, or even a conjectural four-movement completion. Not so for Haitink: ‘You have to respect life but you also have to respect death.’ The dissonant climax of his slow movement is resolutely old-school and terrifying with it, not one whit underplayed. The final bars’ shafts of light are articulated in objective fashion rather than adulterated with healing balm. According to the composer Robert Simpson: ‘The evidence of [Bruckner’s] spiritual as well as physical travail can be seen in the nature of the music itself, often dark to the pitch of blackness, rent with such anguish as he had so far succeeded in keeping out of his music.’ Haitink is perhaps more stoical.
Listeners attached to the recordings made by the conductor as a fresh-faced youngster should note that his initial movement is now 27'31" to 1965’s 23'14", yet there’s no loss of focus. Where some may part company with him is in the Scherzo, its dour, monolithic tread harder to take, although the Trio is notably fleet – he has always favoured a big contrast there. Yes, the Adagio is broad, if not more so than under Carlo Maria Giulini in Vienna’s Musikverein (DG, 9/89). In London’s Barbican Hall the LSO play quite superbly for Haitink and it is not their fault that the auditorium will never sound like the ideal Bruckner venue. While the sound stage lacks depth and air, its un ecclesiastical baldness provides a new perspective on the argument. You won’t quickly forget those stern, unyielding climaxes underpinned by black, cadaverous timps. Is this great music-making? The player in the lift thought so and so do I.