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Reference Recordings Bruckner Symphony No. 9 FR-733 SACD Review

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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor

I. Feierlich – misterioso 25:06
II. Scherzo – bewegt – lebhaft 10:20
III. Adagio – langsam – feierlich 27:46

Three Other Recordings


Feierlich –


Scherzo –
bewegt – lebhaft


Adagio –
langsam – feierlich

Abbado (Live at Lucern) 24 bits/48 KHz 26:47 11:03 25:09
Bruno Walter CD from 1959 recording 23:55 11:34 23:15
Karajan 1976 Deutsche Grammophon vinyl 24:42 10:34 25:46


Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) meant for his symphonies as a personal testament and tribute to God. Each of the nine symphonies in the cycle represent the composer’s evolving sensibility and focus, and they are exercises towards his most perfect work, starting from the First to the Ninth, the fourth movement of which he didn’t finish at the time of his death. If you listen to the Ninth first and then trek backwards, you’ll find the same thematic approach time-encapsulated in his earlier efforts. His earlier symphonies are sometimes even more colossal monuments, but the Ninth, being his final work though unfinished, is most refined and personal.

Most conductors endeavor to honor and purvey the Ninth’s status as such, thus giving it the solemnity treatment. Their approach seek to bestow justice onto the final work of one of the last great Romantic composers since Beethoven, so the ubiquitous heavy-handedness sometimes dull the edges of the music and dragged it through time in manners that stop it for the listener.

I have at least six different recordings of the Bruckner Ninth, three of them I rotate more than the others every now and then, and I had not been disillusioned about the reality of their vintage and was focusing on the music instead. Until I got this red hot SACD from Sean Martin of Reference Recordings four weeks ago at CAS9.

The subject of this review is part of the RR Fresh! Series. Per Jan Mancuso of RR: “In 2010, we started a new, separate series to allow us to release recordings made by other production teams – teams other than our own. The Fresh! series are not, as you see, Keith Johnson recordings.”

The Pittsburgh Symphony recordings are produced by the production team at Soundmirror. Founded in 1972, Soundmirror produces work of such quality that it has garnered 116 GRAMMY awards and nominations. Its artists include Pittsburgh Symphony, Utah Symphony, PaTRAM Choir, and Florentine Opera, labels it worked with as shown on the website include Albany, Angel, Analeckta, BMG, Cambria, CBS, Chandos, Clarion, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, ECM, EMI, Erato, Finlandia, Harmonia Mundi, Koch International, LSO Live, Marc Aural Edition, N2K, Naxos, New World, Nonesuch, PentaTone Classics, Philips, Phonogram, RCA Red Seal, Reference Recordings, Signum Classics, Sony Classical, Summit, Telarc, Teldec, Virgin Classics, Warner/Elektra, etc.

This recording is the definitive Bruckner No. 9.

Compared to the other three recordings of the music I have, namely the live 2013 Deutsche Grammophon 24/96 recording by the late Claudio Abbado at Lucern Festival a few months before his passing, the 1976 Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic on vinyl by the same label, and finally the 1959 Bruno Walter reading with Columbia Symphony Orchestra on a 1996 Sony SBM remastered CD, this latest SACD entry from RR by Honeck and Pittsburgh SO is the most intense both emotionally and sonically.

At times, Honeck is faster than his predecessors, thus heightening the tension; many conductors attempted it and ended up looking just like the next guy on the record shelf. But Honeck has Soundmirror at his beckoning, and did he take full advantage of it.

He pushed the Pittsburgh SO players to impart more cohesion in accelerated tempos to convey not so much sonic edges in the defining of the moment, but a comprehensive whole of the musical message. This is especially true in the first movement, titled “Solemnly.” And he did so knowing the release from Soundmirror would be able to convey his grand vision with distinct technical resolution. Honeck is like the racecar champion confident in the technological superiority of his car and pit crew and thus able to push himself and unleash all his potential without a moment’s hesitation.

The Walter and Karajan renditions maintain the grandeur of the music sans the Honeck treatment in contrasting and emphasizing. The Claudio Abbado, high-resolution DG recording, then, ranks second to the RR release in sonic splendor, but the late Maestro handled the movement quite even-handedly and not out of bound in the midst of his contemporaries.

Now, we arrive at the second “Scherzo” movement. How often do you play the Scherzo of the Bruckner No. 9? This movement, hailed by critics as “the most ingenious thing Bruckner ever wrote,” is also a showpiece for the Hi-Fi fan. It’s very distinct structure and blatant displays of the exchanges between the brasses and the strings are delightful to hear. The Walter Sony SBM remastered CD could pass as a modern day recording, but not a Reference Recordings one.

The raison d’être of the Sony CD lies in this passage alone. Neither Karajan nor Abbado commanded the Berlin Philharmonic, as recognized and reputable as it has always been, to the same height as Walter with the Columbia SO. And it is in this movement that Honeck’s is the quickest at 10:20.

It is interesting that Honeck is over a minute shorter than Walter’s reading, and yet the effect created is not an increase in intensity. In fact, listening to the Honeck treatment convinces me that he looks at the Ninth differently than others before him, in which the Solemnly and Adagio are the monuments that bear the theses of the work, as opposed to many of his colleagues’ emphasis on the Scherzo instead. It is a gutsy move that proved fruitful. First time listeners will feel disappointment undoubtedly by Honeck’s “mistreatment” of the traditional star of the work, it will take a few passes to take in the more expansive universe of the Ninth that Honeck is showing us.

The longest in duration among recordings aforementioned, the Honeck Adagio reveals a depth he has achieved just before the Scherzo in the Solemnly first movement, upgrading the otherwise dormant movement in many others’ hands into a rollercoaster ride. Then, seventeen minutes into the Adagio, the Pittsburgh SO under Honeck conjured up a magical, Vaugh Williams-like euphoria that is surrealistic and hypnotic.

Perhaps Honeck specializes in imparting contrasts in his music, whether it is also evident in his other recordings is unknown as I don’t have them, but his style bodes extremely well in this recording. Atop of all that is, of course, the clarity and resolution of the recording, an aspect that propels the recording well past all that came before it. A towering achievement.


Review system:

Oppo BDP-105D for SACD extraction to Toshiba hard-drive
Oppo UDP-205 as renderer
Aural Symphonics Optical
Bricasti M21 DAC
Pass Laboratories Xs Preamp
Bricasti M28 monoblocks/Pass Laboratories XA200.8 monoblocks
Sound Lab Majestic 645 electrostatic panels
A.R.T. cable system
Acoustic Science Corporation TubeTraps


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