ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS
ANTON BRUCKNER - Symphony No. 9


ANTON BRUCKNER - Symphony No. 9 - Berne Symphony Orchestra - Mario Venzago (Conductor) - 761203778720 - Released: January 2014 - CPO 777787-2

Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 in D minor is a musical edifice of monumental proportions that stands out over the symphonic landscape like a mighty cathedral built out of precisely cut granite blocks which, from the foundation to the top of the highest spiral, aspire to reach perfect symmetry. (Rather appropriate that the image on the cover of this new CD looks like the rough texture of granite). And most conductors approach this symphony from that standpoint, as if reaching a sacred monument after a long pilgrimage and just standing in awe and reverence outside of it, but afraid to step inside. Very impressive, as conductors like Bernstein, Klemperer, Celibidache, Haitink, Jochum, Nézet-Séguin, Karajan, Wand and Tintner amongst others have established, revealing the magnificence of the outer shell, but lacking in detail and clarity. Conductor Mario Venzago, who is well on his way to completing a full Bruckner cycle, dares to open the door and step inside, and in doing so, sheds light on the inner workings. Unlike Mahler symphonies which are mostly built around thematic development and thematic relationships, Bruckner symphonies are mostly built upon harmonic development, progression and resolution. Venzago's leaner approach, fleshing out the customarily drowned-out parts, enables those inner harmonies that form the foundation of the work, to crystalize.

Bruckner was an organist, and outside of Bach, most religious organ works can be rather dense in texture, and that kind of rich, cloudy, legato and chordal writing definitely spilled over into his symphonies. And too many conductors fall into the trap of moving all that weight and muscle around as if it was a sumo wrestler whilst Venzago treats it more as if it was an agile boxer. There's nothing wrong with gravity and ponderousness when it's called for, but it can take away from the natural forward momentum and linear narrative of a piece of music. For example, if we compare tempo differences between the Bernstein Vienna recording on DG with this new recording, by movements, Bernstein clocks in at 26'58, 12'14 and 26'56. (Some of the horn players must have turned various shades of blue during the symphony's final chord Bernstein sustains it so much). Venzago makes it through at 21'33, 9'19 and 20'44. He manages to shave off almost 15 minutes from the total time, or in the middle Scherzo alone, 3 minutes less on a movement that's around 10 minutes long. That is a huge difference, and it makes all the interpretive difference in the world. Don't get me wrong, I happen to consider Bernstein's reading to be in a class by itself, especially for its emotive and visionary aspects, but when you put the sumo wrestler and the boxer in the ring, Venzago wins by his delivery. By separating and highlighting the various harmonic threads through the music, he rarifies the air and brings out the various instrumental colors. The strings shine in the first movement and you can hear them distinctly in the wonderful Wagner influenced chromaticism during its closing moments. Not only the brute force of the Scherzo is emphasized, but so is the finesse and delicacy of its mid-section. Venzago really gets the players going here, and the flutes in particular are a joy to hear. The final movement's massive chords are punched just right and their forces balanced so well that you can actually hear which note the tympani is tuned to. The final few minutes are gripping. When Bruckner deconstructs the massive chords from the beginning and turns them inside out and upside down (harmonically speaking) you can clearly hear each and every note involved in this cataclysmic event. Venzago has even gone so far as to choose a different orchestra for each release of his Bruckner cycle to match as best as possible the sound of a particular orchestra with the nature of a particular symphony. For him it must clearly be all in the details.

Jean-Yves Duperron - March 2014