BRUCKNER Symphony No 9
Mario Venzago’s vision of a leaner, trimmer Bruckner – with big-boned solemnity discreetly airbrushed away – aims to repoint the composer by balancing his Wagner fixation against his symphonic roots in Schubert. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Venzago’s booklet-notes add up to a spirited personal manifesto for what he terms this ‘Different Bruckner’, and they make for an inspiring read.
But consider this. If you were to hear his Bruckner Ninth without any prior knowledge of Venzago’s Weltanschauung, what would you think? Top of your list of questions might be why a conductor would chose a high-velocity tempo for the Scherzo, a tempo that saddles the music with a taciturn, mechanistic quality while leaving the strings scrambling to articulate Bruckner’s pizzicato quavers. ‘How sprightly the movement now seems, dancing jauntily only to transform the buoyant Ländler every now and then into a hissing danse infernale,’ Venzago contends. And having typed those supremely self-confident words, surely I’m missing something? But no. I’ve just listened to the Scherzo again and this playing feels uncomfortable in its skin, not so much sprightly as decidedly jerky, like a Thunderbirds puppet.
Whatever criticism one makes, Venzago has his retorts and statistics prepped and waiting to go. As we all know, 63 per cent of statistics are statistically dubious and Venzago’s point about Bruckner’s Scherzo and accents – that, like Schubert, he wasn’t sparing of accents, and that ‘practically every note in the Scherzo has an accent mark…but it is absurd to conclude that every note should receive equal emphasis’ – is, I would submit, a rather sweeping generalisation. The well-heeled Berne strings and the shrewd plotting of Venzago’s first movement are undeniably impressive. But, after that Scherzo comedown, his Adagio feels aloof and micromanaged, as if Venzago can never really allow himself down deep into the thick of things.
And that this most revisionist of Bruckner conductors should duck the finale question – which since Rattle’s 2012 recording of the Samale/Phillips/Cohrs/Mazzuca completion is a question that ought not to be dodged – is disappointing. A forthcoming appendix CD will apparently mop up the various finale possibilities, although I’d rather he’d taken a decisive view. I’ve just re listened to Rattle’s Scherzo. It’s speedy, like Venzago’s, but Bruckner’s material is given scope to breathe and, unlike Venzago, Rattle’s canny nuances of phrasing and timbre beam with conductorly pride. Venzago has plenty to say about Bruckner’s Ninth; but theories remain theories unless something happens in sound.