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On Bruckner, conductors and the mysterious unfinished Ninth

February 19, 2011 |  9:30 am

  AntonBruckner and Mahler are often paired together by those who want to summarize a particular era or school in one quick stroke.  And it happened that both composers started to enter the mainstream in a big way around the same time –- the 1950s and 1960s.  Indeed, I discovered Bruckner at exactly the same time as I did Mahler, as a kid in 1966 -– and in the same way, from excerpts on an LP sampler. 

However, I’ve since found that Mahler conductors are not necessarily interested in –- or know how to handle –- Bruckner, and vice versa.  Even-tempered Bernard Haitink is one who is equally convincing in both camps, as is the more volatile Zubin Mehta, but they are exceptions.

Georg Solti’s fierce drive served him mostly well in Mahler, but that trait made him seem overbearing in Bruckner.  The German conductor Eugen Jochum was a propulsive and flexible Bruckner pioneer from the 78 rpm days up to the CD era, recording two whole cycles of the symphonies and almost all of the choral works, but he barely touched Mahler over his long career, recording only “Das Lied Von Der Erde.”  Pierre Boulez eventually became an exacting and often brilliant Mahler conductor, but the essence of Bruckner has eluded him so far in his latter-day performances of the Eighth and Ninth symphonies.  

Great Bruckner conductors like Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim came to Mahler late in their careers –- and then only selectively –- while Leonard Bernstein, a Mahler man down to his boots, rarely touched Bruckner, leaving two highly personalized recordings of the Ninth and an aircheck of the unfathomably neglected Sixth.  Likewise Bernstein’s disciple Michael Tilson Thomas, one of today’s biggest Mahler champions, is not as well-known for his Bruckner. 

The more you get into Bruckner, the more you are drawn into the battle of multiple editions –- especially the controversy over whether to finish the unfinished Ninth Symphony.  Bruckner completed three awe-inspiring movements –- which almost every conductor considers to be a perfectly self-contained work in itself –- but he was also working on a massive finale, whose sketches were apparently scattered to the four winds after his death.   

As more manuscript pages turn up one by one (conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt recently encouraged collectors and heirs to go through their attics), a number of attempts have been made to patch together a coherent finale.  The Pacific Symphony -– which plays the Ninth this weekend -– once attempted a complete Ninth back in the Keith Clark era (the 1980s) in their old digs, Santa Ana High School Auditorium.  

But this time, Carl St.Clair and the orchestra will revert to common practice and perform the standard three movements –- and frankly, that’s a good call. The versions I’ve heard of the completed finale suggest that Bruckner, then in deteriorating health, was running out of creative steam -– and perhaps he knew it, too, for he labored for two years until his death trying to get it right.  We can only hope that someday, all of the sketches will be found and we can get a fuller idea of how Bruckner hoped to top off what was already a towering achievement. 

For more on the subject of Bruckner, click here for my Arts & Books essay.

-- Richard S. Ginell

 Photo: Herr Bruckner. Credit: Associated Press

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