Bruckner: Symphony No 9 (Deutsche Grammophon)
Verdict: A poignant Brucknerian farewell from a great maestro

Claudio Abbado regularly appears in the shameless shuffle of Sky Arts' repeat screenings, most recently conducting Brahms, Schoenberg and Beethoven at the 2013 Lucerne Festival.

This concert, together with performances of Schubert and Bruckner's final symphonies, was part of the maestro's very last engagement before he died eight months ago.

There are ecstatic accounts of that Schubert/Bruckner evening with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and now Deutsche Grammophon has given us half of it, with Abbado's magisterial Bruckner.

Extreme poignancy would seem inevitable, considering the occasion and the work.


Bruckner struggled with his score for more than seven years, leaving it unfinished at his death in 1896.

Like Mahler's last completed symphony, it ends with a world-embracing Adagio, running here to just over 25 minutes.

This is no funeral march nor elegy, however, but is full of often vibrant incident, including reminiscences of earlier compositions.

Abbado creates a spirit of bracing affirmation with brass-fired climaxes, passionate, roving strings and clear woodwind textures that seem to reflect the alpine skies above the Swiss city.

Back in 1996, Abbado recorded this symphony memorably with the Vienna Philharmonic but, 17 years later, one can feel a special connection with the Lucerne musicians, with whom the conductor had been working for longer than a decade.

The essential lyricism has not faded but there is a palpable sensitivity to every inflection of the music.

The first movement is a gripping 27-minute journey. Abbado, like fellow conductor Otto Klemperer, likes to take his time. Who might suspect that an opening that evokes foreboding worthy of Valhalla could harbour such searing and sometimes fragile beauty?

An American writer once described the harmony of Bruckner's second movement as "a hard nut to crack even for experts". Abbado does so by bewitching us, at first with the glitter of diamond-like pizzicato and then, in the trio, with a single-minded thrust that begs comparison with Shostakovich.


Bruckner is also a "tough nut" for our own concert programmers but, without revealing what is coming up next year, the strains of Bruckner will once again be resounding through the Town Hall.