Myths have an irritating habit of refusing to lie down or go away. The programme notes for this concert made clear that the notion Bruckner only left indecipherable sketches for the Finale of his Ninth Symphony is nothing but fake news. Work on the reconstruction of a fourth movement based on all the available material started many decades ago. Since then scholars have produced different versions, with several recordings now also in circulation. This one, edited by John A. Phillips, was receiving its first performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Robin Ticciati. The puzzle for me is this: there has been no universal acceptance that this great work must consist of four movements, and indeed performances worldwide tend to favour the “unfinished” ending. Moreover, there have been quite a few mutterings that perhaps this new Finale falls short of expectations. Certainly, no chorus of “Yes, at long last, this is exactly the one we’ve all been waiting for.” After this outing I couldn’t help feeling that one can mine endlessly at the quarry of Brucknerian sketches and fragments, but the end result is not necessarily an imposing edifice.

Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Ticciati’s overall approach was to focus on a lyrical flow, with a good terracing of dynamics, married to a keen sense of the architecture which allowed climaxes to be powerfully expressed. Tempi were on the brisk side, though he sometimes lingered over individual details, such as the flute solos in the Adagio, and the light-footed Scherzo sounded at one stage like a dog shaking all the water out of its fur after being given an involuntary bath. There was sensitivity but never any raw elemental energy, and at the very outset textural clarity replaced any awareness of atmosphere enveloping the listener in the mists of time. The LPO was not always at its best, the brass in particular being somewhat variable.

If the Adagio takes you to the abyss, especially with those grinding dissonances from the heavy brass, this new Finale seems keen to retreat from it. Yet all the echoes of melodic lines and structural features from the preceding movements, a device no doubt inspired by what Beethoven did in his Choral Symphony, together with fragments of the composer’s own Te Deum, never added up to a coherent, convincing whole. Archetypical Brucknerian chorales were much in evidence, though individual voices appeared to be fighting for attention far too often. Compared to the devilish nature of the Scherzo and the awe-inspiring majesty of the slow movement, there was little in the sound world here that was genuinely innovative or arresting.

It was a shame that we were deprived of the version for chorus as well as baritone solo in Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs which occupied the first half. Sir Simon Keenlyside was on fine form, easily conveying the mystical quality of George Herbert’s poetry in his care over the words, even if the composer rarely achieves other-worldliness in his tempered accompaniment. Gentle ripples of pastoral strings in which the woodwind and brass play secondary roles characterised the first four songs. In fact, Vaughan Williams is at his closest to the Brucknerian idiom in the concluding Antiphon, where ostinato elements create a heady surge of momentum driving along the paean of praise.  Benjamin Britten was perhaps being a touch unfair in his reference to the composer’s “fifteen biblical songs”, which he derided for being technically incompetent and artificially mystic, but the work as a whole does lack a real emotional punch.