This is Bernard Haitink’s third round with Bruckner’s Ninth. His two previous recordings, both for Philips, haven’t been reviewed on MusicWeb International, it seems. Both were made with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the first as long ago as December 1965 – it may well have been one of his earliest Bruckner recordings – and the second in November 1981. It’s fascinating to see how Haitink’s view of the symphony has broadened over the years: his 1965 recording took 59:22 and the second traversal took 62:30. Now, in his mid-eighties, he’s more specious still, adding nearly five minutes to the 1981 timing. I’ve long admired both his earlier recordings but it seems to me that this latest recorded performance demonstrates not just a broader view of the symphony but also a deeper one.
The earlier recordings benefited from the contribution of one of the finest Bruckner orchestras in the world and were made in the fine acoustics of the Concertgebouw. The Barbican does not offer as spacious an acoustic as the much older hall in Amsterdam but, to my ears, the results on this new hybrid SACD are very fine. As for the orchestral playing, the LSO are in glorious form here and need fear no comparisons with their illustrious Dutch colleagues.
It may give readers an indication of Haitink’s evolving spaciousness in this score – or, more accurately, in its outer movements – to compare the timings in his three recordings:
There are rewards to be had from the relative tautness of the earliest recording and the second recording is mightily impressive but all I can say after listening to this new version is that it never sounded too slow; indeed, I’d go further and say that everything about it feels both right and inevitable.
The first movement opens with a real feeling of suspense. As the music progresses Haitink shows absolute mastery in terms of dynamics – especially crescendi – and of generating tension. He is a conductor who always seems to have an excellent sense of structure, of the architecture of a movement, and that’s the case here. Amongst details that caught my ear was the craggy grandeur of the first climax (2:46) and, shortly thereafter, the warm and wholly convincing string phrasing in the episode that begins at 4:09. There is a feeling of inevitability as Haitink allows the music to unfold and the big climax at 15:46 is majestic and imposing. I found the whole of this movement gripping in his hands and he achieves a tremendous grandeur at the end of the movement yet, given what has gone before, this grandeur is completely natural and unforced.
The main material of the second movement is deliberate and powerful. Such a trenchant approach maximises the contrast with the delicate trio. The great Adagio is supremely convincing. Here, even more than in the rest of the symphony, Haitink’s patience and his ability to take a long view pay huge dividends. His control over Bruckner’s extensive lines – and over the pauses in the musical argument – is hugely impressive and this mastery is reinforced by sovereign playing from the LSO. The towering climaxes will really make you sit up, especially the final one (from 22:23). Though we know that the symphony is unfinished there is nonetheless a sense of completeness when Haitink reaches the coda. This is an occasion when I’m glad that a live performance is not followed by applause.
I was greatly intrigued by Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of the symphony that included a performing version of Bruckner’s sketches for the finale of the Ninth (review). However, I have to say that when I hear such a wise, magisterial reading of the familiar three-movement version I’m pleased and relieved that there’s no more music after the end of the Adagio. Indeed, it would seem an impertinence after Haitink has so convincingly laid out for us the music that Bruckner actually completed.
Bernard Haitink celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday a few weeks ago, in March, and I was delighted to read a review of a concert in Zurich shortly after his birthday that indicates he is still in top form. In the nature of things, however, it seems likely that this will be his last word on Bruckner’s Ninth, at least so far as recordings are concerned. If so, his last word is a gripping and magisterial reading that should belong in any serious collection of Bruckner recordings.
This recording comes from two performances given in February, 2013, the second of which was reviewed for Seen and Heard by Geoff Diggines.
Masterwork Index: Bruckner