BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor
Minnesota Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, cond.
Reference Recordings RR-81 (DDD) (F) TT: 59:37
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Checking out the recording dates on those Bruckner symphonies that Skrowaczewski has conducted for Arte Nova with the Radio Orchestra in Saarbrücken, this Ninth from Minneapolis is the most recent installment in a nearly-complete series. Only Nos. 0 and 2 are yet to come. "Prof. Johnson's" sonic set-up uses hand-crafted microphones -- an ambience not only cherished but demanded by RR's audiophile clientele. Happy to report, the result here suggests an actual concert hall with the orchestra conventionally seated, on a stage, inside a shell, perhaps under reflecting panels.

This doesn't sound to me like the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall that Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz recorded during the orchestra's Vox years, or that James Mallison and Jack Renner reproduced for Telarc. But at least (at last?) it is a real-world venue, not an etheric space around the players -- above, below, and on all sides -- which is the effect I hear in the "Professor's" recordings of Eiji Oue and the orchestra.

Bruckner benefits proportionately. Beyond that, Skrowaczewski has nailed down his credentials as perhaps the most intelligent, architecturally sensitive, expressively sympathetic, non-Teutonic Brucknerian since the birth of Günter Wand. Sometimes Claudio Abbado will pull abreast, and for a lap or two even move ahead. But Skrowaczewski is unflappable without resembling the emotionally reticent maestro of the '50s and '60s.

The man has grown vastly in musical stature, reminding one of Reiner's or Ormandy's steady growth (to cite randomly, though there aren't a lot of candidates to chose from in the Postwar-2 period). He hasn't succumbed to the faux- Furtwänglerisms of many who surround him today -- conductors who equate slowness with depth of feeling, while favoring weighty sonorities equivalent to a tablespoon of mayo on a prawn. At least when the late Karajan did this it was a tablespoonful on a whole plate of prawns.

Skrowaczewski doesn't let Bruckner swoon, or simper, or say his rosary repeatedly. The sick old man who didn't get to finish the Ninth -- because sycophants nagged him to edit almost everything back to Symphonies 1 and 2 -- emerges here as a stoically dignified personality. The Scherzo is waspish but not a battering ram as some have made it, while the terminal Adagio expresses pain without whimpering. Interestingly, comparing Wand's Cologne Radio tempi on EMI, the older man took 24:01, 10:26 and 23:40 for the work's three completed movements. Skrowaczewski begins with 22:54 in the Feierlich, Misterioso first movement, follows with 10:14 in the Scherzo, but lets the finale play for 26:22 without losing muscle tone, musical purpose, or his sense of direction.

It is the ineffable conclusion to a performance as noble in its lucidity as any since the mono era, before everyone tried to bulk up themselves as well as Bruckner. Do hear it, even if, like me, the composer is an acquired taste for limited occasions.

R.D. (Oct. 1999)