The Adagio of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony differs in several ways from its predecessors, one being that its climax is built on its most grief-stricken and agonised theme. The rising D major trumpet motive that might have delivered a glorious vision at the summit seems forgotten, and instead the wrenching leap of a ninth that opens the movement is piled up into a massive dissonance. In these performances by the Berlin Philharmonic it goes without saying that the orchestral sound was totally overwhelming. Rattle’s way with the seething and urgent Steigerungen (build-ups) to the various peaks in the movement had immense power and it was an extraordinary experience to hear this orchestra in full cry, and see the whole violin section from front desks through to the very back desks playing with such energetic determination. After the stunned silence that follows the climax the movement returns almost to its beginning, the oboe repeating the theme in a plaintive, numbed sort of way, Wagner tubas and horns comment balefully, and finally the brass rise to a long-held pianissimo E major chord, and the movement ends. At this performance it was perhaps a little perfunctory – it was somewhat more expressive in the previous evening – but it was clear this could not be an end to the symphony.

Simon Rattle,  ©  Mat Henneck EMI
Simon Rattle,
© Mat Henneck EMI

It was certainly not the end of the symphony for Bruckner. He finished his work on the Adagio in November 1894, fell sick with pleurisy, but recovered quickly, and in May 1895 set to work on the Finale and was reportedly still working on it on the day he died. Although the symphony remained unfinished, at least two thirds of the movement was done, possibly more. The editorial team, Samale, Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca (all of whom appeared on stage for the first time together at Tuesday’s performance) have made it their generous ambition to let us hear what Bruckner wrote in the context of a completed movement. It has taken over 20 years for it to achieve its present form, which now has convinced Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic that its quality merits performance with the preceding three movements. The repute of conductor and orchestra cannot do other than give added legitimacy to a project that many have claimed is not only impossible, but also unnecessary.

Such criticism was swept aside by these concerts. The finale was performed with total conviction, its three themes characterised strongly. The second theme is a pale, enervated variation on the jagged lightning-bolts of the first theme, and Rattle communicated its melancholy progress very movingly. A blazing brass chorale above frenetic triplet-infested string accompaniment constitutes the third theme, and this is the sort of powerful, visionary music at which the Berlin Philharmonic excels. The double-dotted rhythm of the first two themes obsessively dominates much of the movement. Rattle ensured the rhythmic attack remained taut, and nowhere more so than in the wild fugue at the first theme’s recapitulation, whereupon Bruckner introduces a new assertive and heroic theme on horns, with a triplet at its core: once again, the Berlin Philharmonic horns showed the sort of stuff they are made of. This theme returns after the second and third theme recapitulations – and shortly after, but for a few sketches, we reach the end of the manuscripts that have survived.

Discussion of how long the coda needs to be, what exactly should be its constituents, could – and probably will – go on endlessly. Whatever it was to be probably went to the grave with Bruckner; what is provided here has the limited but nevertheless ambitious function of providing an effective performing version. In this it succeeds wonderfully: the first movement main theme, anticipated in that heroic horn theme and stamping triplets that are almost the last of Bruckner’s notes, makes a return; an inversion of the finale main theme begins the crescendo into the coda (as sketched by Bruckner), there follows a dissonant grinding combination of all main themes of the movements, and then a breakthrough into D major, with the glorious rising trumpet theme from the Adagio at last coming into its own, reiterated thrice on three trumpets, and the movement ends in a blaze of fanfares. Rattle stood motionless, his arms aloft, the orchestra suddenly frozen. It seemed forever, but slowly he let his arms fall and the hall broke into stormy applause; many were on their feet.

Rattle’s interpretation of the opening movement has become far more integrated and coherent since I heard him conduct the LSO at the Barbican in March 2011, the underlying pulse of the movement now never undermined. There were many very beautifully handled details. I liked the slight element of call-and-reply given to the opening horn theme by varying the dynamic and so creating a sense of the vast landscape upon which the forthcoming drama would be played out; and the exploration of the layering of the voices in the contrapuntally complex second theme, each paragraph seeming to highlight a different voice, was a delight to experience. The third theme as Rattle conceives it still seems a bit stolid, but the enormous tutti climaxes that arrive with increasing frequency in the second half of the movement were absolutely shattering in their sheer power and orchestral colour. The stamping Scherzo featured a wonderfully timed general pause before its brutally dramatic theme made its last appearance; the Trio was unusually light and playful.

Sometimes the playing seemed just too beautiful, too wedded to a sostenuto style – something a little more rugged might have enabled a more potent communication of the work’s profound confrontation of death and faith. But goodness me, what a glorious sound they make! Bruckner's Ninth, as the four-movement work he always conceived it to be, has finally stormed into the mainstream orchestral repertoire.

Bruckner Symphony No.9 with Finale (9th February 2012)Ken Ward reviews Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic playing Bruckner's Ninth with a completed version of the Finale.4