Earplugs optional

CLASSICAL MUSIC Bruckner: Ninth Symphony; Te Deum London Philharmonic / Haitink RFH, SBC, London
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The Independent Culture
There was a time when Bruckner's Ninth Symphony and Te Deum were regularly forced into a marriage of convenience (Ferdinand Lowe set that fashion at the Ninth's premiere), the idea being that the choral piece should serve as a makeshift finale for the uncompleted symphony. Nowadays, however, we have access to at least some of the "real thing". Stephen Johnson, presenter of Radio 3's current Bruckner exploration, A Grand, Mysterious Harmony, tells me that yet more fragments of Bruckner's original fourth movement have recently come to light, and that an updated performing version is about to be broadcast. Those familiar with the sketches (there are at least two CD recordings of them available) will also know that the grandly exultant Te Deum inhabits a totally different world to the splintered, granitic and weirdly modulating ideas that haunt the fragmented finale to the Ninth.

The Te Deum opens to a powerful ostinato and a full-throated choral affirmation backed by brass and organ. Given a good performance, the effect is pretty exciting; but if rostrum leadership is inspirational - as it certainly was on Sunday evening when Bernard Haitink conducted the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra - the impact upgrades to "overwhelming". Haitink's reading was at once fervent, malleable and immensely strong. He'd shake his fist at key climaxes, mould the softer phrases with an impressive sense of line and hold quiet accompanying passages on a tensed leash. The London Philharmonic Choir surpassed themselves and the solo team of Rita Cullis, Jean Rigby, Paul Charles Clarke and Anthony Michaels-Moore was uniformly excellent - though the lion's share of praise should go to Clarke, who declaimed the Latin text from a decidedly Wagnerian standpoint.

As to the Ninth, my usual rule of thumb is that if the opening tremolando draws you in, then so will the rest. It was obvious from the start that Haitink and his players were poised for a fiery confrontation. The first tutti had impressive breadth, the lyrical second set a sense of unfulfilled yearning (there was some notably expressive playing from the violas), while the raging return of the first idea - screamed on the brass and fanned by furious string figurations - had a maniacal intensity reminiscent of Furtwangler. A little later on in the movement Bruckner instigates a mounting processional, and there too Haitink commanded an intense response - especially from the brass and timpani.

The Neanderthal Scherzo alternated tip-toe pizzicatos with ferocious hammering: the timpanist excelled and the fleet, almost Mendelssohnian trio section was given with appropriate lightness. This must surely be among the strangest symphonic movements of the fin de siecle, a twilit war dance, full of sickly, spiralling sequences (Andras Schiff sat among the audience, rocking to the pulse) - but if you're in search of musical prophecies, then nothing compares with the crashing dissonance that crowns the Adagio. The sheer volume of Sunday's performance was enough to awaken communal terror, although some ragged playing earlier on in the movement muddied the path to catastrophe. Only the applause was premature: we were all so stunned that we needed time to re-enter our earthly orbit. But the enthusiasm was fully justified.

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