A new version of Bruckner’s mighty Ninth Symphony is more staggering than powerful

Simon Keenlyside performs with Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra – London Philharmonic Orchestra

LPO/Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆

It is often said the symphonies of the great 19thNineteenth-century composer Anton Bruckner are “cathedrals in sound,” huge in effect and lofty in aspiration, and this creates a problem for programmers of symphony concerts. What short filler program can go alongside a cathedral that doesn’t seem small and insignificant?

Last night the LPO solved the problem brilliantly by prefacing Bruckner’s Ninth and Final Symphony with Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, which as well as being a nod to ‘VW’ on its 150th anniversary also got us into the right state of contemplative soul. As for Bruckner’s symphony, it was performed not in the unfinished three-movement form we normally hear, but as a complete four-movement symphony, with a conjectural ending brilliantly stitched together from the composer’s sketches by a group of music scholars.

So potentially a lot to savor and be inspired by, but the reality fell short of expectations. The five mystical songs were sung by baritone Simon Keenlyside, who does a beautifully vengeful Italian count on the operatic stage (he recently played Count Almaviva) and was impressive at his most ecstatic moments, but completely lost the silent, rapt tenderness of ” Love told me Welcome”, the emotional heart of the songs.

Compared to VW’s songs, so simple and lucid in their transcendentalism, Bruckner’s symphony is all restless pursuit, with a Scherzo that sounds distinctly demonic, and a slow third movement that leads from anguish to luminous stillness. In this new version of the symphony that bright moment was no longer the end; the finale embarked on a whole new journey, full of sudden emotional turns and puzzling references to previous movements.

British conductor Robin Ticciati reminded us what an extremely intelligent player he is by bringing form and coherence to this inspired but often confusing piece. Urgency coupled with sensitivity were the key moments; this was a cathedral made of malleable feelings, not massive stones. But the huge agonizing melody that opens the third movement lacked the expected intensity, and there were a few moments in the first movement where the violins didn’t seem entirely sure of Ticciati’s aspirational but somewhat eccentric rhythm. It was hard to know if my lingering feelings of puzzlement were due to the unfamiliarity of this new version of Bruckner’s latest work, or if the artists really needed another try to piece this vast structure together and make sure all the details they were in place. IH

The LPO and Vladimir Jurowski perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 December. Tickets: 020 7840 4242; lpo.org.uk

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