When Bruckner died in 1896 he had done much work on his Ninth Symphony and the finale was almost complete. Unfortunately the executors failed to secure Bruckner's rooms, nor did they ensure that the finale manuscripts were delivered to the Imperial Library. So many pages are missing, and those that do exist are in many locations world-wide. Very roughly speaking, two thirds of the finale exist in five fragments, with many sketches and discarded manuscript papers which help indicate what should fill the gaps. Various scholars have made attempts to produce a completed performing version, so that we can at least hear the music Bruckner worked so hard to compose during his final years.

With a week there were two performances of Bruckner’s Ninth with the Finale in the completed performing version by the editorial team, Samale, Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca (SPCM) in its latest revision - one performance in Eindhoven with the Brabant SO conducted by Friedemann Layer on 16 October, and this performance. Both performances were greeted with great enthusiasm and standing ovations. The symphony as a four movement work is slowly but surely moving into the accepted repertoire, and more audiences are becoming acquainted with a symphony now with the proportions which Bruckner had always intended.

This performance was by a very young orchestra and it was a one-off project, not something fashioned and perfected over a long tour, but the work of merely a few days. So the focus of the evening was upon this youth orchestra event, perhaps rather more than on the German première of a version of a four movement Ninth. Rattle said backstage after the concert, of the symphony as a four movement work, ‘It’s a monster!’. Extraordinarily, those that sought to bring this monster to life were youngsters, merely 16 - 19 years old. Their achievement over the few days’ rehearsal (that included a workshop conducted by Dr Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, elucidating many issues with respect to the sources and the completion) was magnificent. So it really was their concert.

But this was a German première, and for the first time this finale was being conducted by a first rank conductor of one of the most famous orchestras in the world, and as such represents a significant step towards bringing the four-movement Ninth into the received canon. Rattle, after the concert, self-deprecatingly requested understanding that this was his first attempt at the work, the implication being that there are still many problems to solve. As such it can be seen as a dry run for his forthcoming performances of the work with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2012. There was an enormous string section, 20 first violins, 18 seconds etc., presumably to provide as much opportunity as possible for would-be orchestral players, and they produced a glorious sound. But it has to be said that the woodwind and brass - who might have benefited from judicious doubling - were often unable to make themselves well-heard over the strings. Rattle at times had clarinets and oboes raise their bells high, a Mahler-ish gesture, but even so they were often difficult to hear at all. In the tuttis the brass often seemed subject to too great a restraint.

With such limitations it becomes difficult to disentangle interpretation from expediency, and the attempt might in the end be irrelevant to the main thrust of the event. There was a tendency for Rattle to encourage very expressive playing in string passages, like the second subject groups of the first and third movements. In fact the first movement Gesangsperiode [song period] was played with an intense passion of Mahlerian extremity, and in the Adagio, after a nicely played Wagner tuba chorale, Bruckner’s ‘Farewell to Life’, the second theme was delivered with ravishing beauty. But it was hard to feel that either moment was part of a cogent whole, that the expressive power they were generating was harnessed to the overall logic of the symphony. The Scherzo was strongly presented - more from the brass would have made it even better, but the Trio was really rather heavy, perhaps due to the large string section, - and didn’t register such a dramatic contrast as it should. The 1st oboe solos in both the Scherzo and Adagio were played with great understanding and beauty that went straight to the heart.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Finale came over as the most successful movement of the concert. It is partly that there isn’t in the movement a lot of opportunity for lush Mahlerian string playing, so that much of the orchestration was less subject to sabotage by the uneven orchestral balance, and maybe there was an added excitement on the part of conductor and players in venturing into this new territory. The jagged plummeting main theme had plenty of dramatic power, and the spare version of it that constitutes the second theme - though not as spare as a smaller string section would have made it - was nevertheless very eloquent in its melancholy, repetitive way. The trumpets and supporting brass rose to the occasion with Bruckner's great chorale and managed to ring out above the bustling violin triplet-infested accompaniment. Central to the development is a wild fugue, which in this performance hung together quite well - there is often a danger that intensity falls away during its somewhat convoluted progress - and the heroic horn motive that follows was gloriously sounded.

The surviving manuscripts provide very little information for how the coda should be, so in any completion this must be the most conjectural section - but for the completion to work it is very important to come up with an effective solution. This latest version of the SPCM coda is more succinct than it was in the 2008 score. It is in two waves, the first one commencing with the inverted thematic fragments that opened the movement, above it comes a repeated falling motive on flutes and oboe (very expressively played on this occasion) climbing to a grinding overlay of the main themes of all movements, massively dissonant and of shattering power. Then the second wave climbs by means of the inverted main theme, trumpets sound fanfares (one that was first heard to introduce the fugue) and then comes a very dramatic, clinching moment when the three trumpets in unison break through with the confident rising D major theme of faith first heard in bar 5 of the Adagio, now in this completion constituting the final ‘Hallelujah’ that Bruckner’s doctor reported to be the crowning moment of the work when the aged composer had played the movement through to him. To me this is a great advance on previous versions of this coda: at last the movement is provided with a destination worthy of the struggle that has preceded it, and a destination that it is not too difficult to feel is somewhere within reach of what Bruckner might have had in mind. The young people of the Bundesjugendorchester again rose to the occasion, their immense labour crowned with glory.

The SPCM Finale to Bruckner’s Ninth has come along way since 1983. I sense that this 2011 version must be close to as far as their chosen strategy can go - barring the reappearance of more lost manuscripts from Bruckner’s own hand. The Brabant SO and the Bundesjugendorchester have given an intimation of how powerful a work the completed Ninth can be. It’s now up to the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle to present the overwhelming argument in Berlin and New York in February 2012.