Pity poor Anton Bruckner. This "simple" Austrian man, who wrote some of the most astoundingly modern music of the late Romantic period, had the misfortune not to be born with tyrannical tendencies or an ego the size of one of his symphonies. Frequently derided during at least his early compositional career as having a wild and harmonically senseless musical vocabulary, Bruckner later in life aligned himself with the Wagnerians, igniting the critical outrage of Eduard Hanslick, one of Vienna's most respected critics, and an avowed Brahmsian. So many people spent so much time giving Bruckner advice on how to "improve" his symphonies that the poor man spent decades revising and revising, leading to one of the oddest numbering systems ever for a major composer: Bruckner may be one of the few composers with a Symphony No. 0. Bruckner's spotty luck continued after his death, where at least this Symphony No. 9 was greeted with mostly rapturous reviews when it was first performed posthumously in 1903 (premiering in Vienna's Musikverein, where this late 2007 concert was recorded). However, Bruckner has yet to find a major conducting champion like, say, Mahler had in Walter and Bernstein to elevate his works to the front rank of the classical repertoire, if not the public consciousness at large. While there have certainly been a host of great Bruckner conductors, the bulk of his music has yet to be programmed with the regularity that his mentor Wagner's has. This cleanly and crisply conducted DVD performance may help to at least introduce Bruckner's "swan song" to a greater audience, and for that all music lovers should be grateful.
Bruckner is a hard composer to grasp at first listen. As conductor Franz Welser-Most ably points out in an extra interview, Bruckner literally spans the centuries between the Renaissance and Baroque and, as unbelievable as it may sound, today's big "classical" fad, minimalism. Therefore any given piece can have the langorous, long arcing melodies reminiscent of Mahler (in this case in the Adagio), coupled with pulsating wind and horn motives (in this case in the Scherzo) that may remind contemporary listeners of Philip Glass or John Adams. Add to that the bombastic, gargantuan orchestras championed by Wagner and, later, Mahler, and you have a work that is not easy to parse and which certainly demands repeated listenings before its architecture becomes clear.
I had the great privilege of taking master classes in composition from renowned American symphonist Roy Harris and his brilliant pianist wife, Katherine. I remember to this day Maestro Harris stating that Bruckner "composed with a t-square and a ruler," shorthand for indicating the almost obsessive approach Bruckner took to counting bars for phrases and musical periods (something that Welser-Most also touches on in his interviews). Bruckner also has a tendency to favor rhythmic motives slowly transforming over long periods of time (something he shares with today's minimalists), sometimes at the expense of easily accessible melodies, which can make listening challenging for audiences who insist on ear-candy every step of the way. Bruckner's Ninth, as is the case with several composers, is an elegy and reflection on a life soon to end, a "personal dialogue with God," as Welser-Most terms it. The Symphony was unfinished at Bruckner's death, though a fourth movement, largely orchestrated, was found later. Most contemporary performances keep to the three movements that Bruckner finished during his lifetime, and that tradition is followed in this performance.
Welser-Most does a beautiful job in balancing the sonorities of this massive orchestra, with bombastic horns nicely contrasted with more reflective and lyrical wind passages. The symphony is full of some great string pizzicati sections, notably in the first movement, all of which are delivered with absolute clarity and transparence. I was also pleased to see Welser-Most showing some nice restraint on the Scherzo, which some conductors like to take at a maniacally fast tempo in order to punch up its rhythmic ingenuity. Welser-Most's comparatively subdued reading allows the textures to come through much more clearly than had he gone for broke, tempo-wise. The final Adagio is also beautifully handled, with gorgeous horn work and achingly heartfelt string passages.
The filmed presentation is exceedingly intelligent, with nice full orchestral shots taken from several angles intermixed with always spot-on close-ups of various soloists. Watch the oboe player for some amusing facial expressions.
Bruckner may not have the over-arching melody of Wagner (though he cribs liberally from the master in this piece, with outright quotes from "Tristan" and "Parsifal"), or that same melodic invention merged with the dark humor of Mahler, but this pious church organist explored the rapidly deteriorating world of conventional harmony with a zeal that few if any of his contemporaries did. Astute music lovers will find a virtual compendium of musical ideas, past, present, and, yes, future, alive and flourishing in Bruckner's symphonies, and there is certainly no better place to start than with the Ninth. This spectacular performance makes that easy.