06 February 2011

Bruckner and the Can of Worms

Way back in 1970 I went to hear Jascha Horenstein conducting an unforgettable performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony at the Proms. It was the first time I’d ever heard a Bruckner symphony and I was spellbound. My next visit to the record shops found me scanning the racks for a recording of the work – I didn’t care who was performing it, I just wanted to get to know it better. I unearthed an unusual recording on the Telefunken label (and that isn’t a label which often graced UK shops) with Joseph Keilberth conducing the Hamburg State Philharmonic, and a very compelling performance this one turned out to be too. Thus began something of a love-affair with Bruckner symphonies. Within a few months I had added LPs of the third, fourth and sixth symphonies as well. I took a special liking to the Third (unbeknown to me I’d found a real classic of the recorded legacy of Bruckner; Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic) but the Ninth always remained dear simply because it was the first Bruckner symphony I’d ever heard. So when the Malaysian Philharmonic programmed a performance of the Ninth as its third season finale – the first time the MPO was ever to perform any Bruckner symphony – I was considerably excited.

Fairly early on in the season I was drawing up my programme note having never written about a Bruckner symphony before (although in my days with the Musical Times I had been sent for consideration an Urtext version of Bruckner’s complete choral music – volumes and volumes of the stuff – and had built up quite a fund of background knowledge on the man) and was proud of the result.

How naïve I was. Since then, whenever a Bruckner symphony has come up, my stress levels have gone through the roof and I’ve had sleepless nights worrying about getting my facts right.

The problem came to light during that first MPO performance of the Ninth. Sitting in my usual seat at the back of the stalls on the evening of Friday 13th July 2001 (and some will nod their heads sagely at the ominous date), my attention was pulled away from the gorgeous sounds Donald Runnicles was drawing from the MPO by a group of people in the row in front of me who, in the dim light, were poring over scores and casting disparaging glances at one another as what they heard and what they saw clearly diverged. I had encountered my first Bruckner Butchers; people who cut up and analyse every performance of the man’s music to compare against some unattainable ideal. It wasn’t long before they made their views known through, of all things, a letter to a national newspaper (I’ve often wondered if anyone in The Star’s editorial office had the foggiest idea what the letter was all about). Apparently the MPO had broken a fundamental rule of Bruckner performances; they had made use of a discredited edition. A day spent in the company of the then MPO librarian – a brilliant woman of incredible knowledge and consummate patience, Anna Hawkins – going over catalogues and emailing other librarians around the world, opened my eyes to the can of worms that is released every time anyone dares to perform a Bruckner symphony. I’d vaguely known about Bruckner’s pupils all playing around with his music after his death to come up with suitable performing editions, but Anna and I found an incredible thing; there were then, in the words of one authority we consulted, no less than “18 distinct symphonies by Bruckner” doing the rounds. This figure he derived from the many published versions of each work which differed so substantially as to be separate works; although you need to read the score to divine this, for me, much as I like them, I can’t help but feel all Bruckner symphonies sound more-or-less the same with their interminably reiterated sequences of two or three chords and unending sequences of cadences forever turning back on themselves. “We keep our Bruckner fanatics at bay by always announcing in advance which version we are to perform”, one librarian told us. That seemed like a good idea, and would ensure that our Bruckner Butchers would have the correct scores on their laps during the performance; but when I put it to Kees Bakels the following July when we closed the next season with Bruckner Eight, I got a charming and polite reply which, to paraphrase, went something along these lines; “Don’t tell the bastards. Let them rot in hell. If all that’s all they’re interested in, we don’t want them. In any case, I produce my own compilation from several different versions”.

Ever since then Bruckner has spelled sleepless nights and months of anxious worry not just to me but to Anna’s hugely competent and delightfully affable successor, Khor Chin Yang who confessed the other day that “Bruckner always gives me a tremendous amount of stress”. He went on to divulge a great orchestral librarian secret; “It’s comforting to know that it’s the same across the globe among my colleagues in other orchestras. Graham Chambers, big burly guy who was with LSO, hid in the loo for half an hour for getting the wrong version!”

So when Claus Peter Flor programmed the Ninth again this season, alarm bells rang. I make it a part of my job to keep abreast of current musicological research which might have some bearing on future concert programme notes or other things I might one day have to write, and my scrapbook has, over the past 10 years, accumulated a disproportionate amount of new stuff on Bruckner Nine. It all began when Nikolaus Harnoncourt released his outstanding recording of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2003 (RCA 82876 54332-2). It contained two discs, the first given over to a lengthy discussion and demonstration of the fourth movement, which I had dismissed back in my 2001 notes as having been left by Bruckner merely as “several sketches” which, despite a few attempts, were not sufficient to provide a complete symphonic finale. So when I saw on the schedule that Maestro Flor had devoted several hours to rehearsing the Fourth Movement, I assumed he was going to perform a four-movement version and my immediate concern was to find out whose completion he was to use.

(For those who are interested, the latest research tells us that Bruckner had actually written the last movement and was merely polishing it up when he died. Unfortunately, when they laid him out in his coffin and called in the students and admirers to gawp at the corpse, they presented each visitor with a sheet of manuscript paper as a souvenir. Those manuscript sheets were actually the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, so it was immediately dispersed, and it is only in the past few years that people have actively sought to relocate them all and set them into some sort of order. As it happens, the very last page was found and from that it was clear that Bruckner had composed a movement of some 665 bars. So far, pages totalling 569 bars have been recovered, which just leaves 96 to be found (Harnoncourt puts out an appeal on his disc for collectors to rifle through their attics just to see if one of the missing pages is there). As a result some pretty authoritative completions have been made and while the Bruckner world awaits the recovery of those missing pages and the final assembly of the complete movement, it’s become fairly commonplace for performances to include the fourth movement in one completion or another.)

 When I contacted Chin Yang to find out which completion the MPO was to play, I inadvertently opened up the Bruckner Can of Worms again, for he had hired and prepared a version which included just the first three movements (for the Bruckner Butchers, it’s the Novak edition – which won’t help you at all since there are several!). He had no music for, nor knowledge of a fourth movement, and a certain amount of horror ensued. It ended up with Chin Yang releasing a detailed minute of a conversation he had with the Maestro in which he confirmed that just three movements were to be performed (what the MPO will do with the extra rehearsal time assigned for the fourth movement remains a mystery – perhaps they’ll choose to spend a few happy hours in conversation with the Petronas Board). That a single composer should cause this much trouble and anxiety is pretty remarkable, but that’s Bruckner for you.

 Three or four movements, Novak or Schalk, nine symphonies, 11 symphonies or 18 should be immaterial. The fact remains that a Bruckner symphony in performance is something not to be missed. Perhaps it’s the organist in me, but I just adore his use of sound; it’s like an organist improvising and pulling out fistfuls of stops as he explores various sonorities over a well-thumbed chord sequence. And, with his understanding and knowledge of the organ, not to mention his background steeped in the traditions of Bruckner, I would reckon that Claus Peter Flor is going to come up with a pretty devastating reading of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in Kuala Lumpur on 26th and 27th February. Irrespective of the number of movements he decides to perform, it promises to be a highlight of the season.

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