The quest for the best completion of Bruckner's last symphony gets more and more attention, with new updates on the existing completions, some older ones being dusted off, and an increasing number of new recordings appearing. It seems the four-movement 9th is finally becoming canon, just like Mahler's 10th, which was for many years just a one-movement torso.
Some background first:
Bruckner left a large number of sketches for the finale at the time of his death, which can be arranged to form an almost complete movement, with the coda section containing the largest number of "holes". Some scholars claim that Bruckner has in fact completed the movement in draft, but souvenir hunters who raided his home shortly after his death took a number of essential sketches (the ones for the coda) which have been lost since. A rather depressing thought. I personally think Bruckner didn't get as far as fixating the structure of the coda for reasons I'll explain later.
Just like in the Mahler 10th case with the Deryck Cooke reconstruction, there appears to be one completion that's becoming accepted as the most thorough and convincing - and that's the version that was published in 1984 initially by Samale and Mazzuca (later Samale/Mazzuca/Phillips/Cohrs) and got revised numerous times, the latest version being from 2011.
An alternative version is by Carragan (first 1985, latest 2010) and there are at least 5 others, some of which are still played and recorded.
So far I heard three versions of the Finale, all different stages of the Samale/Mazzuca/Phillips/Cohrs-completion.
The first, based on the early draft version (1984) was Inbal's 1987 recording, which was for some reason coupled to his Frankfurt recording of the 5th, on a double-LP. Never really convinced me, it sounded like a random collection of musical ideas without much coherence.
Marcus Bosch' Aachen Symph. version (2007) is based on the 2005 edition and sounds much more convincing. You get a real sense of unity - except for the coda, which is still a mess. Samale/Mazzuca/Phillips/Cohrs have accepted the urban legend that Bruckner wanted to combine the finale theme with the themes of the previous movements - the only source of this being Franz Schalk. Now, this combination of themes sounds so complicated and tense that the much more straightforward rest of the coda comes off as a terrible anticlimax. You've got a passage where the world appears to collapse, immediately followed by some standard homestrech-fanfare, resembling Bruckner's early symphonies. This clearly doesn't work. (What doesn't work either are Bosch' super-fast tempi in the other movements. It's the fastest 9th ever, under 70 minutes with the 20 minute-finale included!)
Last week I listened to Simon Rattle's 2012 performance with the Berliner. This recording uses the latest (2010) Samale/Mazzuca/Phillips/Cohrs version, and it's a subtle but big improvement over the version that Bosch used. Some awkward transitions in the earlier version have been ironed out (I remember one passage in the Bosch recording where a climax ended on a high trumpet note, and the following passage started with that same trumpet not. Sounded like two recordings badly stitched together.) The flow of the coda is better now too, with less of a gap between the final build-up and the closing fanfares. The final pages have gained some depth, but they still comes of as a "Fremdkörper". Of course - with due respect to Bosch - the Berliner's playing is much better than the Aacheners.
Some people have been disappointed in the Finale of the 9th, calling it "2nd rate Bruckner" and even doubting the composer's mental strength in his final years or quoting his failing sanity as reason why he couldn't complete the symphony.
I can't agree there. The early Inbal perfance failed to impress, but now I heard Rattle's Finale, I gotta say that I think it's a better piece (or better: it would have been a better piece if Bruckner could have completed it) than the Finale of the 8th, a movement I never really liked.) The Finale of the 9th comes off as less fragmentary and more organic. In my opinion it mirrors the first movement perfectly, and I always thought of that movement as one of Bruckner's greatest creations.
So why do people dislike it? I think partly because the music is so grim and depressing. It's the darkest movement in Bruckner's entire oeuvre, and I can imagine people who expected the Finale being a happy confirmation of the "heavenly" mood of the adagio, in line with the dedication to God himself being shocked and disappointed.
Instead following the ethereal dying sounds of the adagio we're plunged into a nightmare world, much darker than the first movement. Even the obligatory chorale (3rd theme) doesn't work as an element of faith and praise like in the previous symphonies - it's a monolithic, threatening presence.
The pitch-black darkness of the Finale makes one realize that Bruckner wasn't a happy man in his final years; he was tortured by illnes, obsessions, religious delusions and a gradual loss of his memory and physical strength. Maybe that's why he struggled with the coda so much. Part of him wanted to give it the triumphant conclusion that he gave all his previous symphonies, but he must have felt that it would be out of place and not in connection with the rest of the Finale.
Which brings us back to the question raised at the start of beginning "article": is banal theft by souvenir hunters reponsible for the "missing links" in the Coda? I think the cause lies deeper: in Bruckner's inability to reconcile his traditional concept of symphonic structure with the originality of the material he presented in the Finale.
So, if he couldn't give the Ninth a satisfying triumphant ending (and the various completists couldn't either), what alternatives would be (and will be) there?
Bruckner himself has set an important precedent in his 8th Symphony, by rejecting the triumphant coda of the 1st movement and replacing it with a pianissimo ending in the 2nd version. Something tells me that he - if he had lived long enough to complete the symphony - would have arrived at a similar solution for the Finale of the 9th. Just imagine the music slowly dying out after the final peroration (the passage with the combined themes) and returning to the same mood as the start of the first movement. No heaven, no hell either - but purgatory. It would give the movement and the symphony as a whole a lot more convincing ending - just like the revised ending of the 1st movement of the 8th is more convincing than the original one.
I hope that the people responsible for the various completion projects will realize this and get rid of that ear-sore of a fanfare-coda, in favor of a new composed (based on the sketches of course) pianissimo-ending.
tl;dr: I just wanted to hear some opinions on the various completions and recordings of the Finale, but somehow it turned into a fairly long article. Ah well.