The shadow of death

Anton Bruckner composed until his last breath. Exhausted by the difficult birth of his 8th symphony, the last years of his life were an ordeal during which he worked hard to finish the writing of his 9th symphony, which remained unfinished despite all the efforts made by the Austrian composer, even on the very day of his death. However had he finished it, this symphony would have been only a first sketch of a work that would have required several rewritings by Bruckner to be considered complete, as noted Robert Simpson in his book The Essence of Bruckner. So, what we have left is a sketch of three « completed » movements, which would most likely have been profoundly modified by the Austrian composer if he had the possibility, as well as fragments of the final movement, which were reconstructed by various musicologists, composers and conductors, but which are rarely performed in concert or recorded.

Dedicated to God, ‘dem lieben Gott’, the 9th symphony is an immense cathedral of sounds that, like Gothic cathedrals, aspires to climb ever higher to reach the divine light, but which also contains dark and hidden recesses. As conductor Philippe Herreweghe explains in a very insightful book published by Actes Sud, Bruckner’s music ‘sings with an almost unbearable strength the sadness of the modern man coping with loneliness in a world that God is about to leave, and his thirst for a now impossible redemption’. In a way, what is profoundly tragic in this last symphony, in which Bruckner committed all his physical and spiritual forces and for which he asked God to let him live until he completed it, it is this absence of God who eventually abandoned one of his most faithful servants.

Bruckner’s 9th symphony in D minor is composed of three movements. The first movement, marked ‘Feierlich, misterioso’ (solemn, mysterious) develops a rather traditional sonata form with three themes. It is a complex movement that begins in a hum, like Beethoven’s 9th symphony, a hum from which emerge three thematic fragments (see « The Symphony: a listener’s guide » by Michael Steinberg), but unlike Beethoven’s 9th symphony Bruckner’s begins immediately in D minor. If we can talk about thematic fragments, it is because Bruckner’s symphonic writing does not work with transitions, which made him the laughingstock of the Brahmsians. Instead, Bruckner develops a theme, stops, and moves on, which can be very disconcerting. He simply jumps from one theme to the next. As a result, between the first tragic theme in D minor and the following lyric theme in A major, there is no transition. As Philip Barford explains in the book edited by Philippe Herreweghe, « Bruckner eventually yields to the natural attraction of the D minor, before regaining F major for the end of the exposition. Then there is a recapitulation of the main ideas, before ‘the impressive coda regains the original tone of D minor, in all its mass, like a planet gravitating on its elliptical arc.’ This first movement is like a world both created and destroyed in the same gesture, and must be conducted in a telluric way as the expression of a deep cataclysm, which is exactly what Manfred Honeck does at the helm of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

After this first very tense movement, which is spectacular because of the incredible violence in the tutti, comes a second movement composed of a scherzo, marked ‘Bewegt, lebhaft’ (agitated, alive) and of a trio, marked ‘schnell’ (fast). As Michael Steinberg points out, this scherzo stands out from the scherzos of Bruckner’s earlier symphonies by its brutality and savagery. It begins in an almost innocent and joyful way with light wood chords and then pizzicati on the strings, which then engage in a light but anguished upward dialogue, before the whole orchestra unleashes itself into an infernal dance. Here again we have an exposition / recapitulation scheme before switching abruptly to the trio. There is a fake lightness in this trio, which sounds like a flight forward, an attempt at some lyrical escape that knows no resolution, but repeats itself several times like a bird that would fly around in its cage without being able to escape. There is even less resolution after this trio, since the scherzo is repeated unaltered. This movement is somewhat frightening because of these endless repetitions that trap the listener in a vicious circle. Moreover, in this recording, Manfred Honeck and his orchestra never release the tension, the tutti are of a rare violence in the scherzo and the interventions of the woods are particularly scathing in the trio.

The third movement is an adagio in E major, marked ‘Langsam, feierlich’ (slow, solemn), which opens on a question, echoing the prelude to the third act of Parsifal, when the eponymous hero of Wagner’s opera wanders in search for the Grail. Here the beginning of the third movement of this symphony, Bruckner seeks to reach the E major key, which he finds quickly enough to become, as Philip Barford explains, « the tonal center of gravity » of this movement. However, the quest begun in the first bars does not end there, but continues like a ‘perpetual movement of ebb and flow’, without ever finding a resolution, especially because of a great tonal instability, thus leaving the listener facing the unfathomable mystery of a tormented soul, torn between shadow and light. In the libretto accompanying the disc, Manfred Honeck explains in detail that he thinks that this adagio is built on the scheme of the Agnus Dei of the Catholic liturgy, this moment during the Mass when sinners implore the Christ to have pity on them and bring them peace. This is an interpretation that makes sense since Bruckner knew he was doomed to die while writing these final pages of his symphony and was very likely trying to atone for his sins by dedicating this symphony to God.

This recording is a new reference in a discography that is already very rich (Furtwängler, Abbado, Giulini, Wand …), thanks to the clarity with which we can hear the details of the orchestration without sacrificing the sense of phrasing, the beauty of the Pitsburgh Symphony orchestra’s timbres, the depth of Manfred Honeck’s vision of the work, and the high quality of the sound.

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