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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony in F minor Study Symphony, WAB 99 (1863) [43.23]
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, September 2015, Ebrach Summer Festival, Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen, Germany

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony in D minor Die Nullte, WAB 100 (1869) [43.29]
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, March 2015, Ebrach Summer Festival, Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen, Germany

These two CDs present live recordings of Bruckner’s two earliest symphonies which were performed at the 2015 Ebrach Festival. This account of the Study Symphony marks the completion of Gerd Schaller’s Bruckner series of eleven symphonies which has included the Mass No. 3 and Psalm 146. Schaller also plans to record other Bruckner sacred choral works for Profil.

Schaller founded the Ebrach festival in 1990 with concerts given at either the Ebrach Abteikirche, a former Cistercian Monastery, or at Max-Littmann-Saal, Bad Kissingen. It has become renowned for its performances of Bruckner and the spotlight on the Austrian master continues this July (2016) with Schaller premièring his own completion of the ‘Finale’ of Bruckner’s Ninth at the Ebrach Abteikirche.

Used exclusively throughout this series is the Philharmonie Festiva which Schaller established in 2008 especially to perform at the festival. Its core comprises players from Munich’s foremost orchestras augmented by musicians from other renowned German and European orchestras.

Since 2008 Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva have recorded Bruckner’s symphonies 1-9 using new editions by William Carragan. In 2015 Schaller marked the 25th anniversary of the festival with performances of two of Bruckner’s least known works: the Study Symphony and Die Nullte thus bringing the symphonic cycle to its conclusion.

A product of Bruckner's late thirties the Study Symphony was composed in 1863 and is sometimes known as Symphony No. 00. Having already composed a March in D minor, Three Pieces for Orchestra and an Overture in G minor, the Study Symphony was a result of an exercise set by Bruckner’s teacher Otto Kitzler. It had to wait until 1924 for its première which was given in the town of Klosterneuburg, Austria under the baton of Franz Moissl.

In the opening Allegro Schaller ensures a smooth flow to the lyrical writing. Bruckner’s dynamic terracing is evident, cleanly executed with marked brass fanfares. A general rustic quality permeates the highly lyrical Andante with the strings taking on a beseeching tone. The extended oboe part is striking with an appealing melody that has a rather earnest undertow. Exuberant bursts of brass and woodwind feel near unremitting for a time. Lasting around six and a half minutes the Scherzo under Schaller is determined. It has a restless quality bordering on the playful. Regarded by some as the weakest of the movements the Finale contains music of real beauty. There are woodwind and brass calls mainly on the horns while the work's conclusion feels jubilant and uplifting. Throughout the work it’s easy to imagine that Bruckner was depicting the stunning Austrian countryside that surrounded him. At times the mood of Beethoven’s ‘PastoralSymphony is not far away. A live performance of the ‘Study’ Symphony is rare and it’s a real treat to hear one as excellent as this.

The score of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 0 in D minor dated 24 January to 12 September 1869 carries the designation Die Nullte. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Symphony in D minor Opus Posthumous' and is also called Symphony No. 0. Chronologically it follows Symphony No. 1 in C minor completed in 1866 which Bruckner regarded as the superior work. Die Nullte was premièred at the same concert as the Study Symphony in Klosterneuburg in 1924. Although rarely heard in concert there are a number of fine recordings.

There is a celebratory manner to the opening Allegro that Schaller presents bursting with energy. Conspicuous are the long phrases on the high strings over persistent march rhythms. This juxtaposition produces an unsettling, almost disturbing undercurrent. The Andante is lyrical and dreamy with Schaller creating a near sacred quality. The rising melodies on burnished strings sound glorious. The Scherzo contains two contrasting themes: the first lengthy, chain-like, robust and determinedly rhythmic. The second is passive and Mendelssohnian with a pastoral quality. In the richly textured Finale Schaller creates a disconcerting atmosphere with angrily brassy outbursts of considerable forward momentum. The build up to the jubilant and resolute climax is particularly commanding.

Throughout both symphonies the assured Philharmonie Festiva plays with firm focus and a strong sense of engagement. It feels as if Schaller has balanced the sections of the orchestra with scrupulous care and this pays dividends. Ideally I wanted more warmth from the strings but the effect is still eminently satisfying.

The engineering team produce excellent sonics that are vividly clear, well balanced and have a natural presence. I notice that the audience applause has been taken out at the conclusion of each work. Both releases have impressive booklet essays written by Dr. Rainer Boss. These are interesting and highly informative.

There are established accounts of these two early Bruckner symphonies from Radio-Sinfonie-Orchestra Frankfurt under Eliahu Inbal on Teldec/Warner (both Symphonies); Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Vladimir Ashkenazy on Ondine (Study Symphony); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchesters Berlin under Riccardo Chailly (Symphony No. 0Die Nullte’) on Decca and Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim on Deutsche Grammophon (Symphony No. 0Die Nullte’). Schaller’s compelling and responsive live readings can stand alongside any of the competition. In particular Schaller outclasses both of Georg Tintner’s Naxos recordings of ‘StudySymphony with Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Symphony No. 0Die Nullte’ with National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.

Bruckner’s two earliest symphonies are by no means mere curiosities. They are absorbing and worthy works that anticipate the masterworks to come. Be assured that these performances are top-drawer.

Michael Cookson

Previous review (Nullte): Ralph Moore



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