In Stereophile, Richard Lehnert writes about the Berlin Philharmonic's recent performance of the Bruckner Ninth at Carnegie Hall, with Simon Rattle conducting. At the close, Rattle and the Berliners presented a realization of the unfinished finale, by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and Giuseppe Mazzuca. I, too, attended the Carnegie concert, and agree with Lehnert's judgment: although the finale made a substantial impact, it seemed uncertain in places, and one could almost sense skepticism on the part of the players. Yes, the realization is necessarily speculative, especially with regard to the coda, yet Bruckner did a great deal more work on the finale than most people assume. Cohrs, in his notes to the most recent edition, observes that 557 of 647 bars come directly from Bruckner, and only thirteen bars were wholly invented by the editors. (The most common performing edition of Mozart's Requiem, by contrast, is significantly more speculative: nearly a quarter of the score is by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. I have never understood why some conductors happily serve up all that ersatz Mozart while rejecting out of hand the Mahler Tenth or this new Bruckner Ninth.) As I wrote in a Bruckner column last summer, "Some of [the finale's] strangest, most improbable gestures—trumpets leaning on a piercingly dissonant minor-ninth interval, for example—come straight out of the manuscript. Indeed, at one place in the autograph, Bruckner writes “gut” over a weird harmony combining F major with the note B, as if saying to posterity, 'Yes, this is what I want.'"
What I found really riveting about this Ninth was the changed nature of the symphonic journey. With that craggy, visceral finale looming as the new endpoint of the narrative, the symphony lost its usual air of cultish mystery, of ritual passage into silence. I suspect that the slightly quickened tempo in the first movement, the full-throatedness of the climaxes, and the sharpness of the dynamic contrasts were related to the fundamental alteration of the plan. And shouldn't this always be the case, whether or not one chooses to engage with the finale materials? Shouldn't conductors and players always at least imagine this ending? As Richard Lehnert argues, in a further comment on the Ninth, the cliché that the three-movement version is complete in itself, that the Adagio is the composer's true farewell to life, contradicts not only his practical wish to finish the work but his spiritual and philosophical beliefs. Let's not invent a quietistic scheme that Bruckner never had in mind. He has received enough condescension over the years.
Update: Sedgwick Clark discusses this Bruckner performance in his indispensable Why I Left Muncie blog at Musical America.