Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
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Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, WAB 109 (Original 1894 Version)
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New York Times - Best of 2017!
The latest CSO Resound release features Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a compelling performance of Bruckner's formidable Ninth Symphony. Left unfinished at the time of the composer's death in 1896, the immense work unfolds with stirring climaxes, daring chromaticism and harmonic richness. It is perfectly executed by the CSO, long-admired for its Bruckner interpretations. The Orchestra also holds the distinction of presenting the American premiere of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony in 1904. Muti brings remarkable lyricism to this dramatic work in a performance that embodies the exceptional synergy between the distinguished maestro and the CSO. A musical force in Chicago and around the world, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is consistently hailed as one of the finest international orchestras. The orchestra has earned 62 Grammy awards for its extensive catalog. Muti, with an orchestra that is invariably sublime, shaped the meandering work with total conviction- from the opening sound of horns and the hum of strings, through richly lyrical sections, to sudden storms and then to sudden bits of quiet. (Chicago Sun-Times) Nobility, lyrical feeling and dramatic thrust are keys to Muti s approach to the Bruckner symphonies... like a quiet and controlled church ritual that suddenly bursts forth in powerful glory. (Chicago Tribune)
Ms. Sampson s brighter version is different enough to be appreciated on its own terms --New York Times - Best of 2017 - James R., Oestreich
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For me, second place would be a tie between Barenboim (DG) and this new Riccardo Muti one. The Barenboim is better conducted, as it displays Barenboim's greater dedication and understanding of Bruckner's idiom. However, this new Muti one is easily the best recorded one of the four (and a live recording, at that). The Solti is decent but nothing special, either. I could live with it, but his would also be my last pick of the four.
Getting on to the performance, this is not your father's Chicago Symphony. It's clear that either the trumpets have been placed farther away, or maestro Muti has them playing on rotary-valve German trumpets (the proportions and bell tapering are different). The trumpet sound, as captured here, is much 'darker' sounding than usual. This is a good thing for the most part, but they also fail to cut through dense textures at key climactic moments. They often times get buried just at the moment they should be rising above everyone else.
This is a complete opposite from the days when Adolph 'Bud' Herseth ruled the trumpet section and, as a result, the Chicago brass were often times too loud - showing a general disregard for indicated gradations of forte (loud). For the most part I do like this more 'blended' sound, but there are times when the trumpets need to soar. But in general, Muti is employing what many of us call the 'pyramid effect' when it comes to balances.
The 'pyramid effect' means the bass line is the strongest, as it provides the foundation for everything else (certainly harmonically speaking). Instruments in the 'middle ground' are the next strongest, while treble instruments rest on top and make the least amount of noise. Of course, this is a huge exaggeration, as there are many moments where the violins are truly in the lead. Also, the upper woodwinds need to cut through at numerous moments - something that isn't always easy to do in Bruckner. I give kudos to maestro Muti for permitting his woodwinds to clearly register when they need to (they do a fine job). So what's the downfall here? . . .
Simply put, the downfall is Muti's conducting. There's a general lack of intensity - something that I thought I would never say in regards to the Chicago Symphony - which, combined with Muti's tempo relationships from one section to the next, leaves the whole performance feeling a bit disjointed (rather like the sentence I just wrote). There may be moments where the brass are generally too loud in the Giulini recording, but there's also an organic outgrowing for the whole performance that's hard to resist - as though it had been made in a single take. Everything builds inevitably to just outrageous climaxes. Here, the main climaxes are a tad too tame. It may have helped if the C.S.O. horns had picked up the slack for the covered-sounding trumpets, but even the horns sound tamer than usual. I am, however, thankful that the C.S.O.'s current timpanist doesn't just pound away as the previous one or two often times did.
Riccardo Muti is a conductor who I greatly admired in his post-Ormandy Philadelphia days (he also did some decent work with London's Philharmonia Orchestra). However, I'm not so convinced by him in this, his more 'autumnal' period. I am happy that he has addressed the abused excesses of the C.S.O.'s, "let-her-rip" brass section, but one wonders if he hasn't swung too far in the direction of micro-managing. His Bruckner, to my ear, has always sounded a tad on the 'slick' side. Still, this cd sounds excellent when one really turns up the volume, and it's difficult to dismiss that one single fact when evaluating it.
Sad to say, Uncle Igor’s pampered pooches are legion - and it’s not hard to assign Muti’s B9 with the Chicago SO to this category – woof! The first movement is toothless. Menace and volatility are rarer than iridium. It wouldn’t scare Tinkerbell or the Milky Bar Kid. I cannot fault Muti’s pacing therein – and no examples of over-revving come to mind. Even so, don’t listen to this B9 when you’re halfway to the Land of Nod – sleep will ensue. For instance, the quiet passage after the big climax (here at 17’35”) should be a threnody, not an intermezzo. Truth to tell, the Scherzo from 7’26”ff onwards and the Finale itself are not unimpressive, as if the Dark has finally seeped into the affair – but how does one recover from a prosaic first movement? Cultivated though they be, the strings of the CSO lack the daredevil edge of the Berlin Philharmonic in the days of the Legion Vast.
This is less unimpressive than Solti’s B9 with the same orchestra – but so what? Horseman, pass by!