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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, (1896; unfinished, ed. Nowak)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live 23-25 February 2018, Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Multi-channel hybrid SACD

The stream of live Bruckner recordings in general shows no sign of abating, despite continued disdain for his work from some critical quarters; I have reviewed several live accounts of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 9 this year alone and the latest batch of discs to be reviewed, in addition the Ninth Symphony, included recordings of nos. 3, 4, 6 and 7, coming from Germany, the USA and Japan. Not only that, but standards of playing seem to be rising inexorably; virtually every new recording has great merit and evinces a real empathy with Bruckner’s idiom. Perhaps the world has caught up with those of us who have always maintained it and Bruckner has after all finally been accepted into the canon of indisputably great composers?

I am mildly surprised, however, that so many conductors still prefer to play the original three movement version rather than employ one of the many completions now available but of course concluding with the sublime Adagio remains a profoundly satisfying option, for all that the various fourth movements offer another highly rewarding experience.

This recording follows another trend in being presented in “multi-channel hybrid SACD” but I am afraid I listened to it only in conventional digital stereo. Studio recordings are of course now a comparative rarity; most of the current output is live or live composite, assembled from more than one concert. The advantages conferred upon recordings by modern sound engineering technology and the immediacy of live performance are sometimes compromised by the fact that it also picks up the bronchial intrusions of inattentive or inconsiderate audience members, but at least composite recordings such as this one give the producers the option of using different takes to avoid the worst blemishes. In any case, there is almost no extraneous noise here – with one caveat: Honeck has caught the increasingly prevalent habit among conductors of groaning tunelessly along with the music – or it that today’s sound equipment picks it up more readily? In any case, I hope he doesn’t start to emulate the worst offenders such as the late Sir Colin Davis and Kent Nagano. Otherwise, the sound is exemplary, which just enough air around the instruments to suggest the ambiance of a concert hall but ideal balance among them. The brass is very present, blip-free and impeccable of intonation, while the orchestra sounds like what it is: world-class.

This is a grand, mainstream performance, on the monumental rather than the propulsive side; speeds are conventional and Honeck seems completely in command of those big, arching phrases punctuated by typically Brucknerian pauses, generating tension without losing shape, pulling tempi about or pecking at climactic notes. The Scherzo is especially sharp and precise without sacrificing any weight or impact and its dynamics are tellingly graded; the Trio is frolicsome and surprisingly fast but eases satisfyingly into its lyrical passages before the return of the pounding, demonic main theme. The grandeur, dignity and sonority of the Adagio here are the equal of any other recording; the movement builds magnificently for the last five minutes to a transcendent conclusion. It must have been quite an experience to have attended the concerts.

Old hands will see no particular reason to invest in this new recording and may rest content with three-movement recordings by Walter, Wand in Lübeck, Giulini with the VPO, Karajan or, more recently, Sado and Jansons, but its superb sound and flawless execution would make it as fine and rewarding an introduction to the work as any in the catalogue.

Ralph Moore

(This review commissioned and reproduced here by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal)


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