Sunday, May 15, 2016

Performances of Bruckner 9 by Mariss Jansons and Christian Thielemann

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 9
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Conducted by Mariss Jansons

RCO 16002 (SACD/Multi-channel DSD 5.0)

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 9
Staatskapelle Dresden
Conducted  by Christian Thielemann

Unitel Classica/C major  LC15762 (Blu-Ray)

Here are two very different performances of Bruckner’s Ninth. Both are live, and both are contributions to ongoing cycles, but the resemblance stops there. The stopwatch tells the tale. Thielemann’s performance weighs in at just over 62 minutes of music, while Jansons comes in at 54”44’. I have reviewed Thielemann’s Fifth and Eighth favorably (here and here, respectively). In both of those cases the weightiness of his interpretation worked to good effect. Here I am not so sure. Jansons seems to me to provide a more compelling interpretation, despite his less distingished pedigree as a Bruckner conductor.

Thielemann’s interpretation falls short in the first movement. His approach is too smooth. The problem is a lack of contrast – not dynamic contrast (of which there is plenty), but rather affective contrast. It fails to present enough tension for subsequent resolution. The climax before the coda has all the trappings of drama, but misses the depths that in the best performances make the coda more effective. The legacy of the opening movement weakens the later movements. The Adagio is more compelling taken on its own terms, and the affective contrast works better – not surprisingly, given that this is some of Bruckner’s most dissonant music.  But considered within the symphony as a whole it does not have the force that it should have, because it rests on a weak foundation.

To my ear Thielemann is too reverential. Many listeners, though, will find Jansons going too far in the opposite direction. His tempi are definitely on the brisk side (some might say rushed) and some of his accelerandi and ritardandi are very noticeable indeed. Nonetheless I found his approach to the first movement more satisfying than Thielemann’s. There is a real sense of urgency (in the build-up to the first climax, for example) and as a consequence the tension and drama come across more effectively. There is a real sense of release with the first movement coda. Jansons’s scherzo has a more driving rhythm, which sets up the Adagio nicely. He luxuriates much less than Thielemann in the third movement (and is nearly six minutes quicker!), but the climaxes and overall structure are at least as convincing.

Curiously, the Jansons performance, which feels more authentically live, was actually recorded over three different live performances in Amsterdam in March 2014, while the Thiemann Blu-Ray appears to have been recorded in a single evening (May 24, 2015). The sound quality is good on both, with the Jansons recording from RCO Live coming in SACD format with stereo and surround sound options (I listened in 2-channel, as usual). The videography by Agnes Méth on the Thielemann Blu-Ray is skillful, but occasionally a little too involved.

Of the two my recommendation would be Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw. But I would not dissuade anyone from buying the Thielemann Blu-Ray.