Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (four-movement version) — Rattle/Berliner Philharmoniker

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are the top of the classical music pile. They boast a full complement of recordings that sell extremely well and the orchestra’s own benchmark digital delivery system, the Digital Concert Hall. The ‘Hall’ is sponsored big time by Deustche Bank and is state of the art in HD, production and direction. That it has the world’s greatest orchestra and finest conductors doesn’t hurt, either.

Rattle can (and does) conduct and record whatever he likes — a testament to his incredible musicianship, the love the players have for him and the esteem in which he is held by recording companies. Everyone wants Rattle.

I’ve watched his rise and musical growth over almost 40 years — I attended the world premiere of Maxwell Davies’ Symphony (now, Symphony No. 1) with the Philharmonia in 1978 while a student in London. For the second half of the program he did Das Lied! A young conductor that had charisma, talent and superstardom writ large, even back then.

His recording/performance development with the Berlin Phil has been akin to a good marriage. They learned the rules with each other, he, after a blaze of glory with the CBSO, and they with the clarity and austerity of Abbado. The marriage began a little rocky, but has grown to one of such deep understanding that the orchestra never sounds better than when conducted by him. Together, they are the gold standard. It'll be a sad musical day when he leaves the orchestra next year. 

This brilliance continues with this 2012 recording of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, ‘Four Movement Version’. Because of the ease of digital, the listener can accept the completed 4th movement, or just edit it out in a playlist or with the remote (like me).

Bruckner did complete much of the fourth movement — at times, he was discovered praying on his knees confessing ‘Please God, just let me finish the 9th’. For that sincerity alone, the music deserves to be heard. And, you can hear the 90% that Bruckner composed in addition to the completion from Bruckner’s notes/sketches by four musicologists (Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John Phillips and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, now known as the SMPC Complete Performance Version) played beautifully by the Berlin Philharmonic. As for symphonic finales, it is interesting as an exercise and a lesson in musical history, but pales compared to those of the 5th, 7th, and 8th. And, is no meal completion after one of the greatest Adagio’s ever conceived. That said, Rattle obviously believes fervently and the orchestra plays the hell out of it.

What you should buy this extraordinary recording for is the superlative performance of the original three movements. Beginning with what is arguably the greatest symphonic opening in music, through the ‘Mephistophilian guitar’ and hammering of the famous scherzo, to the sublime ‘Farewell to Life’ Adagio, as Bruckner called it, Rattle captures the sound of his magnificent predecessors (Furtwangler AND von Karajan) and adds his love of bringing out subtexts and the square but ingenious counterpoint.

The recording is very good, more Abbado era than Karajan, and allows Rattle’s amazing way with codas and the massive chords as they resonate through the acoustic. Of course, the orchestra as a whole is mesmerizing, but props to the horns and oboe. Baby, nobody does it better.