Vienna Philharmonic • Bernard Haitink
If there is a choice for hearing an orchestral program, go for the last of two or three performances—and, overruling rule no.1 when in conflict: always go for the evening performance rather than a matinee. The Vienna Philharmonic’s fifth program at the Salzburg Festival made the choice easy: Either on August 25th at 11AM or on the 27th at 8PM—although the smart program of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony should have worked well even for a late morning.
The most important aspect about the 4th movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is not that it is missing, but how its absence affects the first three movements. The way it is, the Adagio gets seen as the closing statement, a view furthered by the biography of Bruckner: a lachrymose farewell to the world, a whole symphony of parting and intimations of mortality. With the 4th movement, as modern and daring as anything Bruckner wrote, the whole work shines in a bold, stormy new light. In that sense the Finale is important, perhaps essential, to the understanding of the Ninth Symphony, no matter how provisionally or incomplete or deficient the sketches and ‘completions’. No matter, even, whether it is played or just imagined.
That insight makes nonsense of the stubborn opinions that the Ninth Symphony in three movements is somehow “perfect”, or “really, actually complete”—which is a psychological Sweet Lemon and easily exposed by a few hypothetical ideas. Would anyone claim, unable to un-know the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, that that symphony would be complete or perfect as a three movement work? Or would we, if the complete Finale of the Bruckner Ninth fell into our laps, discard it, be saying: No, it’s really a lot better without it; this Fourth movement only detracts. Hardly.
A.Brukcner, Symphony No.9,
+ Fragments of the 4th mvt.
N.Harnoncourt / WPh
Should we not play the Ninth Symphony in three movements, though, only because the Finale isn’t complete? That’s a ringing “No”, also, and Bernard Haitink—who wasn’t going to experiment with any new reconstructions of the Finale—proved it with a terrific performance. He brought the first movement—“Feierlich, misterioso”—into gear with shimmery, indefinite parallels to the opening of said Beethoven’s Ninth or Wagner’s Rheingold. From there it took Haitink just a few bars, not minutes, to have the full sound of the Vienna Philharmonic grip the listener by the ears. Powerful brass chorales soon blared into the Grosse Festspielhaus, but for all their might, they were softly lit, never harsh. A lively, quick, responsive second movement varied between the elegiac and powerful wit and excitement, and the Adagio was a determined and calm, exhalation, with the tension of a clenched fist. I don’t remember when I last heard the Vienna Philharmonic—on its best behavior—so precise, coherent, and brawny in concert—down to the last man (and two token women in the far back).
With just three or four patches, the performance would have made a fine “Salzburg Festival Documents” recording for Orfeo d’Or, but at least that night there were no microphones present. Then again that has its advantages, too. After all, a special moment can only imperfectly be captured with microphones, after all. But very well with one’s memory.
As an overture of sorts, Murray Perahia performed Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. From the few introductory notes alone, Perahia exuded a felt and sensitive promise he went on to fulfill. Haitink coaxed a beautifully soft orchestra’s end of the dialogue out of his players while the soloist, in direct contrast to the pianist the previous night, was able to turn on a dime from pedal-pounding, well rounded fortissimos to soft delicacy to puckish runs. The cadenza was spirited and a real sense of elastic drive and precision informed the performance. The only detraction was an unfortunately disquiet audience, with cell phones ringing and voicemails being played on speakerphone. Moments during which one wished that Haitink didn’t quite succeed as well in making the Vienna Philharmonic play real pianissimos.