Patterico's Pontifications


Near Perfection: Vienna Philharmonic Does Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony at Disney Hall

Filed under: General,Music — Patterico @ 7:24 am

[This classical music review was written to reinforce this site’s image as a den of top-hat and smoking-jacket-wearing dudes. Also, because I enjoyed the concert and wanted to write about it. If you hate classical music, as most do, feel free to skip it. — P]

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Zubin Mehta conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.

Also on the menu were Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” and Marx’s “Selected Songs.” Both were excellent, but let’s face it: I was there for the Bruckner.

Bruckner’s Ninth has been a favorite of mine since I was a young child repeatedly borrowing an LP performance from the Fort Worth Public Library. They had some music on those newfangled cassettes, but most of the selection was on records, and this performance — by Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra — was perfect.

The symphony was Bruckner’s last work, and was not finished. It is in three movements, ending with a long Adagio that he called his “farewell to life.” Unfortunately, it was: the fourth and final movement was never finished.

There are those who will tell you that the symphony is perfect in three movements. Since it has been performed that way since the beginning, it’s hard to argue with the perception — but don’t believe it. Bruckner fervently hoped to finish the last movement, and he wrote enough of it that a couple of musicologists have attempted to realize it. There are several recorded versions of the Ninth out there with a realized fourth movement, and I think I own them all. I can tell that, if he had finished it, it would have been awesome. Hell, what he did finish is awesome. What I haven’t heard realized properly is his planned coda, which combined all the themes from the symphony. Legend has it that Bruckner got up from his deathbed and played it for a friend on the piano. Too bad the friend wasn’t a Mozart-style talent who could go off and transcribe that performance note for note.

In any event, it is never performed with a realization of the final movement except as a novelty, and last night’s performance was restricted to the traditional three movements.

I had a ringside seat: first row of the side Orchestra (Orchestra West). Disney Hall is a wonder: with a seat like that you can see all the performers’ (and the conductor’s) facial expressions without binoculars. You feel completely engaged in the experience and the sound can’t be matched.

The first movement was the best. Mehta lost part of the orchestra momentarily with a quickening of the tempo, but that minor flaw aside, it was perfect. “It sent a chill down my spine” is a cliche, but it really happened to me listening to the closing bars of the first movement.

The otherworldly harmonies of the Scherzo have always made it a favorite. Probably because I was weaned on the Walter performance, Mehta’s rendition seemed a little ponderous at times (did the violins have to bow downward for every note in the main theme?), but the orchestra hung together beautifully.

The last movement came off virtually without a hitch. To me, the difference between a top-notch symphony and a lesser group lies in the horns. They’re awfully difficult to play, and it’s rare to hear a symphony performance where you’re not distracted at some point by wobbly horn playing. Last night I heard maybe one tiny shaky bit for about half a second in the whole two hours. That’s nothing compared to a usual symphony performance. That tiny, tiny blemish aside, the horn tones were glowing, warm, and strong.

All in all, it’s a concert I’ll never forget. So even though maybe only two of you are interested, I really wanted to write about it.

51 Responses to “Near Perfection: Vienna Philharmonic Does Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony at Disney Hall”

  1. Better Half and I attend several symphony performances a year, but nothing that comes close to that scale or level of mastery. We really enjoy Symphony on the Prairie, performed outdoors at sunset, and Tchaikovsky on the 4th of Juily, complete with real cannons is always a joy. I am far from as educated as you in this arena, but I like to think that I can enjoy well-written and well-performed music in any genre.

    I happen to be listening to Elton John performing live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the car as I type this. I am not particularly a fan of Elton John, but this performance is masterful, especially Tonight.

    JD (63d902)

  2. Patterico – It’s nice to see you waited until the morning to post this because we all know you have trouble reading and writing at night.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  3. > So even though maybe only two of you are interested…

    Minimum of three!

    AMac (c822c9)

  4. Always a pleasure to read/hear someone talk passionately about their passion…you should provide a link to a recording of it…

    winston (60daac)

  5. If you hate classical music

    (Dons tophat and smoking jacket and inserts Balkan Sobranie in ivory and amber cigarette holder.) I believe that Bruckner is from the Romantic period not the Classical.

    nk (502275)

  6. Four. I fell in love with classical music as a band student, and am often seen doing my “air conducting” on my 45 min commute home.

    I don’t (yet) own a recording of this piece. You recommend Walter’s?

    neocon_1 (d098d0)

  7. We supported Chicago’s Symphony and Sinfonieta (I preferred the Sinfonieta to tell the truth) until we decided to spend the money on music lessons and instruments for the daughter. My wife still attends the Lyric Opera.

    nk (502275)

  8. Split hairs, nk. Chamber music, opera, baroque, romantic symphonies are all banded together as generic “classical”. So Bruckner’s flavor of classical fell in the Romantic period; so did Tchaikovsky’s. If someone had Tchaikovsky’s “Seranade to Strings” playing, everyone in the room would say, “Oh, classical music.”

    neocon_1 (d098d0)

  9. I finally gave up on my OC Performing Arts opera season tickets this year. They keep putting in these “modern” operas when the classics are not heard enough. About five years ago, the LA Opera had Pavarotti doing Carmen. I tried to get seats. Nothing available at $400 per seat. I listen to classical music on my iPod but opera requires your presence.

    Glad you enjoyed it.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  10. Who the hell wears a top hat and a smoking jacket at the same time?

    Official Internet Data Office (9b8d76)

  11. Split hairs, nk.

    Well, Patterico started it! I quote: “This classical music review was written to reinforce this site’s image as a den of top-hat and smoking-jacket-wearing dudes.”

    nk (502275)

  12. It’s nice to have a bit of culture in the midst of politics and punditry. Baroque? Nothing, absolutely nothing like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons!

    Dana (be9504)

  13. P.S. (Lights Sobranie while warming snifter of brandy and lifts nose 1/4 of an inch superciliously.) Philistines!

    nk (502275)

  14. Patterico – Why did you think that few of us would appreciate this? Maybe you assume that anyone that thinks the way we do must be knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing hilljacks that prefer their music to include only a banjo and a fiddle?


    JD (63d902)

  15. Hey, you forgot the washtub and scrubbing board.

    AD - RtR/OS (6b51ea)

  16. There is no accounting for taste. My XM is tuned to three classical channels, two country, and one jazz. All for a guy who looks like a knuckeldragger. Go figure.

    Barsinister (971960)

  17. And on the “smoking-jacket-and-tophat-wearing” thing … Jeff G. of Protein Wisdom, who came up with this shit phrase, might wish to reconsider what kind of assholes he has attracted to his site and what kind of posters his “policies” have driven away.

    nk (502275)

  18. I’m not real familiar with Bruckner, though Im rather fond of some classical (Bach mostly). Is this the one you are refering to?

    Vivictius (1720ac)

  19. AD – My dad still has that washtub and notched broomstick in the basement for the gut base we used to play with the neighbors with the banjos and guitars growing up. I’m not sure what happened to the clothes line string. I’m sure we could rig a new one.

    daleyrocks (5d22c0)

  20. Pat has trouble seeing at night? I’m sorry to hear that. My wife suffers the same trouble. Thankfully, LISTENING isn’t affected. In fact, it might be enhanced. I enjoy taking her to performances of the Ann Arbor Symphony because she enjoys it. And I’m glad to share Patterico’s joy in a well-played piece. It is satisfying – even if not what I choose to listen to in the car myself.

    On the other hand, my teenage son always has a classical CD in the player – typically heavy on the horns, as he is a trumpet and baritone player himself.

    Soon this website may qualify as “crunchy con.”

    Gesundheit (47b0b8)

  21. Its Baroque?


    Have Blue (974cdf)

  22. I am jealous. I live in a small town and don’t have the budget to go the offerings in Atlanta. I’m a Baroque man myself, to quote PDQ Bach scholar Peter Schickele “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it”

    Dr T (69c4b2)

  23. Great minds run in the same ruts Dr. T.

    Have Blue (974cdf)

  24. As a musician trained on piano and trumpet (and self-taught on the guitar), I can tell you that I enjoyed this review.

    otcconan (d6afba)

  25. Wow, Bruckner’s 9th is what got me obsessed with the Romantic Period as a teenager. My mom took me to see it performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at age 14. I expected it to be a boring Sunday afternoon at the symphony and instead I had to restrain myself from headbanging. I really should listen to it again. That and Bruckner’s 4th.

    Chris M (e59e68)

  26. Classical: any work that’s been around long enough to have survived the sieve of time.

    My tastes run to the symphonic, so I’ll have to try and give this a listen to.

    LarryD (feb78b)

  27. A great review of what seems to have been a stunning performance. If you’ve got a recording preference, I’m interested. I’ve lost track of the number of classical music fans, so I’ll just say number++.

    htom (412a17)

  28. I sat in the terrace west. The second half of the performance was amazing!

    nat (78f0f0)

  29. One of the first classical pieces I learned to enjoy was Carmina Burana by Carl Orf. I liked the fact that the songs had been sung by the Goliards, 14th century hippies, if you will. A few years ago, the OC opera company did a double bill of Barber of Seville, which is quite short, and a staging of Carmina Burana that was so good, I got tickets for another performance and took my daughter. She then went again and took her boyfriend.

    MIke K (f89cb3)

  30. This was a pleasure to read, Patrick. Thanks for posting.

    Tim McGarry (9fe080)

  31. I went to many Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts when Solti was conducting, and their performance of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man will always stay with me.

    Dmac (49b16c)

  32. It’s nice to see a right-winger who appreciates something other than Wagner (although Bruckner is fairly dramatic in his own right.) More classical music blogging please.

    Xanthippas (ddef4c)

  33. The only thing wrong with Wagner was that he was liked by a certain Bohemian paper-hanger.
    Other than that, he was representative of his times, and much more likable than Freud.

    AD - RtR/OS (6b51ea)

  34. …and another thing:
    Wasn’t a certain portly gentleman renowned for his fondness for brandy and cigars, and his intrepid leadership during a time of crisis, also an admirer of Herr Wagner?

    AD - RtR/OS (6b51ea)

  35. If you like Bruckner, especially the 9th may I suggest Mr. Mahler. Specifically, Mahler 2, or 3 and 5. Happened to catch the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw at Disney Hall last year, performing Mahler 5, and I was impressed by the music as much as by the hall. Disney Hall is magnificent.

    Both Bruckner and Mahler have Viennese roots, and their music is similar. You will like.

    Luke (e2f719)

  36. Anybody who gets this far and hasn’t heard . . . Chicago’s legendary classical station WFMT streams online at, and if it’s not exactly the same as sitting in the first row (I did that one season in Denver, for the Britten War Requiem most memorably), the programming is unsurpassed.

    Thanks for the post, an unexpected pleasure.

    linda seebach (6290d5)

  37. It’s nice to see a right-winger who appreciates something other than Wagner (although Bruckner is fairly dramatic in his own right.)

    Sorry: my next music post will probably be a review of Das Rheingold. We’re going soon.

    Patterico (cc3b34)

  38. I’m a little late to this, but as a classical music fan, a Bruckner naysayer, and (more important) a former hornist, I have to laugh at your comment about “wobblying horn playing.” We’re wobbly all right.

    When I was still blogging, I actually wrote about this and gave my technical explanation of why hornists flub notes all the time. I called the post “Splat!

    Attila (Pillage Idiot) (7e2b79)

  39. Comment by Attila (Pillage Idiot) — 3/4/2009 @ 7:57 pm
    Thank you for your defense of beleaguered French Horn players everywhere.
    Of course, a favorite saying that I remember from an orchestra a long time ago, was that if you started together, and finished together, a lot that went on between would be overlooked, or forgiven.

    AD - RtR/OS (6b51ea)

  40. I like classical music but am not familiar with Bruckner’s work. I’ll have to give it a listen.

    Yes, OCPAC is inferior to the Music Center. I’ve only been to Disney once but it was great. (Don’t like the upholstery of the seats tho).

    Patricia (419c68)

  41. #1,3,and 4 of the Ring Cycle are OK but tedious. Die Valkure however is one of the all time great operas in my opinion. My favorite though would be Beethoven’s Fidelio, and surprisingly, the best version I have ever heard is the Glyndebourne performance available on DVD with Soderstrom, Appelgren, Allman, and de Ridder. There are four magnificent performances that put more prestigious companies to shame. Few opera performances I have heard have more than one or two.

    Machinist (c5fc28)

  42. Great review, it prompted me to psot my first comment to this blog. I’m going to iTunes now to d/l it. I’m just sorry my first post had to be right after number #43. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!

    Zymurgyst (a8a122)

  43. Zymurgyst, Ya, I hope that didn’t follow me in.

    Does iTunes have the same performance Patterico mentioned? I’ve never used it.

    Machinist (c5fc28)

  44. Comment #42 by Machinist — 3/5/2009 @ 1:34 am:

    My favorite though would be Beethoven’s Fidelio, and surprisingly, the best version I have ever heard is the Glyndebourne performance available on DVD with Soderstrom, Appelgren, Allman, and de Ridder.

    This particular drift from Patterico’s enthusiastic review of Bruckner’s greatest work reminds to tell about the funniest classical music experience I’ve ever had, a collision of classical music and law enforcement. Back in the day I was a student at a trade school across the river from Beantown, and acting as a roadie for its symphony orchestra.

    The orchestra was making a local tour of town auditoriums, performing the overture to Leonore #2 (hence this opportunity from mention of Fidelio). One feature of the piece is an offstage trumpet, for which trumpeter yours truly had the honor of providing arrangements at the performance. As the piece proceeded, the trumpeter dodged out of the orchestra on stage and met me by the stage door, where he took a position in the hallway facing the door. I was to hold the door open just a crack for him to see the conductor, then to fling the door open wide a bar or two before his entrance.

    We stood there counting bars. But just before the trumpeter’s entrance, around a corner down the hallway ambled one of the township’s finest constables in his regular patrol of the venue.

    Spying two suspicious characters, one of whom was armed with a trumpet, who appeared intent upon vandalizing the concert, he rushed breathlessly toward the miscreants. “Stop!”, he shouted, “You guys can’t do dat! Geddoudda heah!”

    I flung open the door and positioned all 5 feet of myself between the trumpeter and the approaching intermeddler. I waved my arms and whispered a shout (if that’s possible), “It’s in the score!”.

    Undeterred by my cursory explanation, of which he apparently had no comprehension, he continued his dash down the hallway toward the stage door. The trumpeter, who had been momentarily distracted by the approaching constable, turned back around and made his entrance, perfectly on cue.

    Seeing that he had failed to stop the vandalism, the constable stopped in his tracks, pondering just how to make an arrest during this crime in progress. Immediately after the short passage, the trumpeter quickly slipped back through the door on his way to his orchestra chair. I shut the door and faced the constable in the hallway with my back to the door and my hand on the door handle. “It’s part of the music”, I explained. His facial expression of consternation morphed into utter confusion.

    “You sure?”

    “Absolutely. Now if you’ll excuse me…”

    I slipped through the door and back to my duties, leaving the confused constable standing by the stage door scratching his head, pondering whether to chase me through the backstage jumble of instrument cases, music stands and folding chairs.

    Needless to say, we all had a good laugh on the bus back to school. And yes, I swear it’s true.

    Occasional Reader (0009a3)

  45. #37 Thanks for the tip. Los Angeles’ wonderful classical station, KFAC, with its “Gas Company’s Evening Concert” has been gone for years. The announcer had been doing that show for so many years that he was also used to do the introductions at the Greek Theater and Hollywood Bowl classical programs and always got a big hand before he mentioned his name. Everyone knew it from his voice. Worse has happened to California but that was about the beginning of the end.

    MIke K (8df289)

  46. Comment by MIke K — 3/5/2009 @ 11:08 am


    AD - RtR/OS (dc4e89)

  47. Oh, I know about KUSC but it didn’t take the place of KFAC until years later.

    MIke K (8df289)

  48. Yes, the turmoil in the L.A. radio markets with the loss of the great Classical and Jazz stations has been traumatic.
    But, life goes on with KUSC & KJZZ…
    (which reminds me…I was watching that Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do” and noticed for the first time, that when The Wonders were doing a DJ studio interview, the call letters on the wall were KJZZ. Hanks must be a fan).

    AD - RtR/OS (dc4e89)

  49. I was always a bit lukewarm on Brahms until I heard Kurt Mazur’s series of the four symphonies when he was directing the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Those old vinyl discs opened up that composer to my ears.

    A couple years later at college I was speaking with a graduate student in conducting. He was a former horn player who had followed Masur to his next gig based on the sound of the horns in those records.

    So at least for German Romantic music, the horns have it.

    Cyrus Sanai (ada6da)

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