BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 – Hallé Orch./BBC Northern Sym. Orch./ Sir John Barbirolli – Pristine Audio

This previously-unreleased Barbirolli/Bruckner Ninth bristles with ardent energy and yearning devotion.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in d minor (Original Version), WAB 109 – Hallé Orchestra/BBC Northern Sym. Orch./ Sir John Barbirolli – Pristine Audio PASC 486, 57:43 [avail in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Producer and recording engineer Andrew Rose resurrects a taped BBC performance of Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth Symphony (1887-1896) given by Sir John Barbirolli at Free Trade Hall, Manchester, England,14th December, 1961, the conductor’s debut in this music. The combined orchestras of the Halle and Northern Symphony come as a true rarity, and Barbirolli coordinates his forces well. The opening movement vibrates with a palpable luminosity, nervous and grandly ardent. The challenge lies in imposing a sense of structure on the fantasia that Bruckner unfolds, moving quickly from d minor into D-flat and E Major in order to effect potent fff climaxes spread over long periods. The earthy energy Barbirolli applies well reminds me of the performances of Bruckner by Eduard van Beinum, which likewise strain for mystical release in the face of grinding tension. The most exalted rendition, the Furtwaengler 1944 performance in Berlin, attains its anguished mysticism in the face of contemporary world history.  Still, the unison triple-fortes from Barbirolli enjoy their own, muscular ferocity.  We can feel a true sense of the recapitulation, rife with melancholy pauses and drooping figures, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s statues of shades. The combined trumpet work at the coda truly shatters the ozone layer to get at the heavens.

Despite harmonic ambiguity in the manner of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, the Scherzo, too, resolves itself into d minor. In the midst of the emotional maelstroms Bruckner unleashes, a single oboe attempts to provide solace.  The upward motion catapults downward in an abysmal descent, a vision out of Dante or Milton. The Trio brings a breathless relief, vainly yearning for pastoral consolation. The whirling woodwinds face thumping, nervous strings.  The sense of unfathomable despair will appear later, in the final movement, when Bruckner writes a colossal chromatic chord comprised of seven pitches. Having returned to Bruckner’s original edition, without the Loewe “clean-up” campaign we can savor just how far Bruckner meant to urge traditional tonal schemes, to the point where Schoenberg felt compelled to exceed Wagner and Bruckner and dispense with conventional tonal expectations. The huge Adagio opens with an agonized hymn in a curious form of E Major, with two pitches, C and A-sharp, intruding where they do not belong. By the time we reach the massive finale in resplendent E Major, Bruckner has reprised melodies from his D Minor Mass, the Adagio of the Symphony No. 8, and a fragment from the Seventh Symphony. Barbirolli imbues Bruckner’s epic oratory with a pregnant gravitas, especially when we hear the “Dresden Amen” motif and its spirited aftermath.

That the entire movement, if not the entire Bruckner opera, serves as an extended Te Deum, we can scarcely doubt, given the alternately somber and lyrical cast of this excellently-preserved performance, which sonically transcends its origins as an FM mono source tape (using Pristine’s pseudo-stereo, which works extremely well), courtesy of great pains taken by Andrew Rose to grant us a rare event in the meeting of the composer and a dedicated John Barbirolli.

—Gary Lemco

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