Leonard Bernstein didn't conduct much Bruckner and he only recorded this symphony once before, with the New York Philharmonic. But Bruckner's Ninth was the last thing he conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic and it is from one of those concerts (or possibly a conflation of several of them) that this DVD is taken. He had conducted the VPO in this symphony that same year at Carnegie Hall, so it is clear that he and the VPO were very used to each other's ways in this work. The orchestra and Bernstein were in complete rapport. Bernstein was dead within a few months of this performance and surely was already sick at the time it was recorded. One would not know it from this DVD, however.
Of course, this symphony contains Bruckner's final thoughts on the form. He was ill when he began it and as his health continued to deteriorate he was unable to finish it although he courageously attempted to work on it right up to his last day. There is a strong belief on the part of some musicologists that although he did work on a finale he knew he wouldn't have the strength to finish it and thus made sure that the ending of the third movement Adagio would have some sense of finality about it. And it certainly does. It is my own personal favorite of all of Bruckner's symphonic movements. For me the simplicity of the coda of the Adagio is a peaceful acceptance of the inevitability of his death, and it never fails to move me.
Bernstein's performance is two-thirds of a great one. The overall tempo of the performance is slow, as Bernstein's tempi tended to be in his last years. But honestly the first movement, with its almost hysterical bumps and grinds at Bernstein's hands, seems at 27 minutes to be twice as long as the glorious finale at 29 minutes. The conductor tries to scare up more emotion than the movement can muster, rather like someone trying to squeeze more juice out of an orange. The VPO play beautifully here and in the succeeding two movements, but even that cannot rescue this histrionic approach.
But when we get to the Scherzo we are in different territory. This last scherzo of Bruckner's was unlike anything he'd written before. Gone are the bumptious high spirits of his usual rustic scherzo. Here was have a piquant delicacy that is new. Still, in the A section of the scherzo this slowly gives way to an anguished, almost hellish, chromaticism that is at the last moment rescued by the B section, the trio in the rare key of F sharp major, which is almost Mendelssohnian in its diaphanous texture, some of the most unusual (and lovely) music Bruckner ever wrote. And then we come to the Adagio, thirty minutes of truly final thoughts. It is hard not to believe that Bruckner was contemplating the infinite here. There references to Parsifal and even the Dresden amen here. Although there are advancing and ebbing climaxes here as in the first movement, Bernstein does not so much emphasize them as live them. The VPO's playing in this movement is as good as I've ever heard from them. The sound of the brass, including the difficult-to-play Wagner tubas, is radiant throughout, but they outdo themselves in that quiet coda where the tuben and then the horns, over incredibly beautiful soft string figures, play long soft passages that recall the opening of the Eighth and then the Seventh symphonies, a summing up of his life's work one can suppose.
To sum up, the second and third movements of the symphony are read as beautifully as I've ever heard. My benchmark in this symphony is the recording by Bruno Walter, alas in dated sound, and I'm also very fond of the Karajan and Giulini recordings. But those are CDs. There is a Bruckner Ninth DVD with Günter Wand but I've not seen it.
Sound and sight fine for 1990. One sees a great deal of Bernstein conducting, but there is plenty of opportunity to see the individual players of the Vienna Philharmonic as well.