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Blame it on the Bruckner: the Ninth Symphony

It’s hard to describe a Bruckner symphony. Imagine a Vogon Spaceship: huge and awe-inspiring but there’s probably a planning office round the back where Scherzos are signed in triplicate and the adagio (as big and soaring as a hyperspace bypass) is awaiting council red tape. It’s a place where ostinatos hang in the air like bricks don’t.

I jest of course. Some find Bruckner long-winded, ugly and unspeakably dull and certainly the first symphonies are more Vogon-like than the latter. But the Bruckner 8 and 9 are towering achievements. And as an inexperienced music critic, it’s good to bag a ninth.

Some background information in case you’re saying ‘Anton who?’ at this point. Bruckner was an Upper Austrian peasant who spent far too much of his youth locked up in the monastery of St Florian. He had none of Mahler’s Faustian charm and was hounded by the ferocious critic Hanslick for being a pathetic Wagner epigone. He endlessly petitioned underage peasant girls. He was death-obsessed. His faith was unshakeable yet his self-doubt was pathological. His gigantic symphonies are grubby with other people’s meddling, riddled with revisions and re-writing, with mathematical obsession. Conductors like Haitink and Eugen Jochum have done much to champion him on the world stage but he never had his Bernstein like Mahler did. We never liked him much in England because in the cold war between Wagner and Brahms we sided with Brahms who dismissed Bruckner’s symphonies as musical boa constrictors. Though I much prefer the NYT critic’s description of them as musical coitus interruptus… Still, all that’s irrelevant when you are face with the towering cosmic Ninth symphony.

It was the London Symphony with Valery Gergiev, unleashing cosmic forces under the dome of St Paul’s. The LSO are a slick bunch and Gergiev had that ‘Here’s Johnny’ glint in those dark wild eyes. He wielded his baton with a villainous intensity and we hotfooted it through the adagio. When the inexperienced members of the audience at the back tried to clap after the first movement, his hand furiously snapped up. He meant business.

But he was facing a towering enemy: St Paul’s, the nemesis of the big symphony. It’s an enormous vaulted death trap: spaces and knaves and awnings and the dome itself are pitfalls where the sound wanders lost, where the echoing horns that herald creation bash into scurrying ostinatos. I looked up into the dome and wondered whether some stray chords from Gergiev’s Mahler 8 outing did not still linger here, slowly going mad.

And so the strange unsettling journey through the scherzo was conducted by a man who looked like he was trying to land a harrier jumpjet on a stamp whilst the sound swirled around like hazily like drunks at closing time. All in all, the strings seemed to weather it best. Which is fine if you’re Mendelssohn.
The great smoking pyre of fifths into which 1st movement conflagrates, with chords splintering apart and jarring in a dissonant blaze had all the blaze of a camping stove in a high wind. The occasional note from the Wagner tuba spiraled up into the dome as round and golden as a harvest moon and cutting through the muted yompy stompy savagery was the occasional sweet curling tendril of the oboe solo.

It was hard to know what to make of it. Gergiev seemed to treat St Paul’s as if it were a gigantic garden shed and so this great symphony hovered between the Terminator and Bambi. Indeed it wasn’t just the ill-fated undertones of Parsifal I heard. I was hallucinating the Jaws theme tune somewhere in the third movement. We went out on the faintest whisper of a wobble on the last note. It sounded sweet and frail. I imagined it cowering like a choir boy before a glowering Gergiev.

I left slightly puzzled. It was my first ninth and I had been hoping to hear whispers of the hereafter. Death tended to come for those who dared write the ninth - ‘As if something could be imparted in the tenth which we ought not to know, for which we are not ready’. (Schoenberg)

Bruckner’s ninth is buckets of feierlich and misterioso, tortured collisions and galactical reprises and all the more so because it’s unfinished and one imagines him in 1896 in his last days, surrounded by growing piles of sketches and scribblings, his faith dwindling desperately trying to articulate his most eloquent finale but death left him with only aporia and shadows.

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