CD review

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No 9 in D minor, with completed 4th movement by Nors S. Josephson. Aarhus Symphony Orchestra (Denmark), conductor John Gibbons (GB).

Danacord DACOCD 754. Movements 1-3 published by Ferdinand Lowe (1903), discredited as inauthentic before its edition by Alfred Orel (1932-34) and Leopold Nowak (1951).

Worthing Symphony Orchestra artistic director and conductor John Gibbons has stuck his neck on the block along with a California-born composer and musicologist, Nors S Josephson, who has dared to complete and bring to life the incomplete last movement of one of the world’s great symphonists.

This historic first completed Bruckner 9th recording compiles from what Bruckner wrote in full score (his first 236 bars), then short score (on two staves) and sketch, in six versions, up until bar 555, a short way into his final section, the coda, when death − against which he knew he was racing in the two years he spent composing the movement − lifted him away after a quiet October afternoon garden walk in 1896. He was the age Josephson is now: 72.

But any posthumous examination of music he left was undermined immediately Bruckner died, by souvenir-hunters stealing odd pages from the score. These holes Josephson had to plug from the short score but writing the instrumentation (the scoring) he sensed would have been Bruckner’s. Josephson then needed to create on a clean slate the symphony’s concluding mountain peak, the coda, by arranging, developing, piecing and pulling together music from the entire work into a climactic summation of both this four-movement epic and Bruckner’s entire life of musical dedication to his ‘Dear God’, with its lonely, often maligned pioneering work as a symphonist.

Some task. Some leap of faith and instinct. It took Josephson 10 years, including scouring and combing for clues pages of the music preserved in three Viennese libraries. Josephson’s track record also includes completing Mussorgsky’s opera Khovashchina. Having had to place himself inside the compositional mind of a perpetual drunk (Mussorgsky), he now had to decide what influence impacted on Bruckner’s composing mind from his deteriorating health, his increasing arithmetical neuromania and his deep absorption in his religious faith. While also probably experiencing conflicting late-life doubt in faith itself, as Bruckner’s first three movements may fearsomely suggest.

One certain thing, however. Bruckner often said he was composing “for future times”. So whether or not he was to survive completing his 9th, what would no longer matter to him this late in his days was any criticism or misunderstanding of his work all over again by the Press, music academics or orchestral conductors, some well-meaning, some not, whose rejection of certain earlier symphonies led him into confidence crisis-ridden revisions of those works. Those long, agonised spells, some a waste of time, some not, cost him the time and the mental and physical strength to complete the 9th.

Buy this CD and on your first listening you become Bruckner’s first-performance audience. Do you, at this moment, think it works as a symphonic finale befitting of this culminating moment in Bruckner’s life and work? You, of course, have hindsight, more than 100 years on. You may already enjoy many of his previous Symphonies, his three great Masses and his distinctive set of Motets.

Perhaps you already sense that in his 5th, 6th and 8th Symphonies, Bruckner succeeded most in his great symphonic quest to be able to construct logical, coherent and worthy finales to the symphonies of unprecedented large scale that he’d conceived.

Even so, first hearing this last movement of the 9th is a complete and inevitable shock. But you have further hearings during which to step inside what Bruckner is trying to work out, create and express, all against the clock. His grappling with his self-imposed symphonic problem continues, but Josephson’s own coda safely assumes that Bruckner planned a final climax to end all Brucknerian final climaxes, and appropriately to crown music he dedicated literally to The Almighty. A paean of glorification during which the humble Anton himself could prostrate himself before his final Judge.

And this recording and performance of the whole work? It is instructive in its necessary new perspective of three familiar movements forerunning a culminating fourth. Until now we’ve had conductors injecting or heightening drama in the first three movements to create an overall self-sufficiency and collective artistic completeness.

Gibbons now embarks on a four-stage expedition and it is striking how calmly he paces himself across the wider expanse and how carefully he sets about an inevitable longer-term unfolding. There is fine judgment of intermediate climaxes so they don’t outweigh or upstage the ultimate ones.

Just as the CD cover shows the fourth jigsaw piece now dropping into place, the book’s absent last chapter is now present with a denouement the restoring author believes was intended. Until now, the first three movements evoked their own individual and collective world, the third in crisis and asking far-reaching questions accumulated during the first two − but without a fourth to attempt any answers.

Interpretatively, movements 1, 2 and 3, already amply self-justifying, are if anything understated by Gibbons as he casts each as a long accumulative preparation for the fourth in accordance with Bruckner’s characteristic time scaling. Gibbons and Josephson have created for us a new journey of discovery and revelation.

The sound is transparent, not thick nor heavy. Arrestingly so in many places, and the Aarhus Symphonic Hall acoustic is importantly spacious for this composer. Gibbons, also choral director at Clifton Cathedral, handles with assurance and affinity Bruckner’s choirs of orchestral sound.

The horns need to be in ominous and translucent top form − and are. For Bruckner, they and the sublime Wagner tubas are painting a fading life’s great sunsets and visions. The flute needs to be a small, troubled, but wise bird of good omen − and is. He or she inhabits the mysterious caverns and precipices the music encounters, ruminates upon the mysterious givens and non-givens of existence, and ultimately consoles, bringing glimpses of light into the darkness.

Schubert’s 8th is the world’s favourite unfinished two-movement symphony. Bruckner’s 9th is the highest-vaunted of those incomplete after three. Both convey an inherent perfection. People until now have decried and even condemned the thought of anyone doing what Josephson has done. It’s easily forbidden by anyone who hears as surely Bruckner’s musical last resting place the final moments of the Adagio, which now sound just like his final wearied walk in that garden, on the threshold of his paradise.

But if we go with Josephson and his ten-year toil, we can accompany Bruckner in his tremulous, doubt-plagued, striving for that last glorious goal of his life’s work.

Richard Amey