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Anton BRUCKNER (1824 – 1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1887-1896) Four-movement version, with Finale completed by Gerd Schaller
Philharmonie Festiva Ebrach/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, the Abbey Church, Ebrach, Germany, 24 July 2016
PROFIL MEDIEN PH16089 [36:54 + 47:43]

With this recording Gerd Schaller becomes the first conductor to record for commercial release two performances of the Bruckner Ninth in two different four-movement versions. His earlier live-performance recording from an Ebrach Festival concert of 1 August 2010, which features the Finale completion by American musicologist William Carragan, was subsequently released on Profil Medien PH11028 as part of its integral series of all eleven Bruckner symphonies. This new recording appears as a supplement to the complete set and represents Maestro Schaller’s own thoughts regarding the process of bringing the fragmentary Finale torso to a form suitable for performance. It is also clear that Schaller continues to rethink his approach to the first three movements, with this newest recording ratcheting up the drama in comparison to 2010. Throughout the earlier recordings of the symphonies, the Philharmonie Festiva plays wonderfully as a world-class ensemble, but I must say this 2016 Ninth steps up the game yet another notch or two, with a sense of dramatic spontaneity and “digging in” that comes from a public performance before an appreciative audience.

Clearly, Schaller sees the Ninth as a four-movement whole and paces the movements accordingly, giving appropriate dramatic weight and flow to their sequence. This flow parallels that of Symphony 8, which broke with the precedent of Symphony 7 where a second-movement Adagio precedes a third-movement Scherzo. Thus in 7, the weight of the musical argument lies with the first two movements. After 7, Bruckner decided to reverse the Adagio and Scherzo for 8, and later for his Ninth, deliberately reverting to the movement sequence of Beethoven 9, where the weight of the musical argument lies with the last two movements. With this new ordering of movements, the rhetorical weight of the musical argument shifts significantly from the first two movements to the Adagio and Finale, and Schaller is successful in conceptualizing and executing an organic, “big picture” performance that honors the symphonic/dramatic arch as intended by Bruckner. Notably, his Adagio has a definite sense of forward motion, pushing forward to the Finale and the desired resolution of the symphonic argument. A comparison of timings between 2010 and 2016 gives a hint of Schaller’s thinking. Where I is almost identical (25:16/25:54), the slight tightening of II (11:38/10:58) and III (24:35/23:00) demonstrates an increasing drive to the finish. Although the Finales are different versions with significantly different codas, a comparison of timings (22:12/24:40) suggests yet further weight in Schaller’s conception.

We should acknowledge the historical fact that in the last months of his life Bruckner never accepted just the first three movements of his Ninth as an artistic whole, and attempts after the fact to justify performing only the first three movements as somehow artistically complete or satisfying are in direct contradiction to the composer’s expressed wishes and intent. With the availability of performing versions of the Finale, or, alternately, with Bruckner’s suggestion that his Te Deum be used as a Finale, there is no reason apart from the personal preference of a conductor to perform an incomplete three-movement Ninth. And those that so choose should have the intellectual honesty to admit that their personal preference, not Bruckner’s wishes, is the deciding factor. Of course, Bruckner would have no doubt revised and reworked the emerging manuscript of the Finale had he lived longer, but that is no reason to dismiss what we have. The same can be said about Mozart and his Requiem, Mahler and his Symphony 10, Bartok and his Viola Concerto, Puccini and his Turandot, etc. – all examples where the composer died before completing the work in question, and where those works have been accepted into the repertoire.

The case for this Finale as a major representation of Bruckner’s final thoughts as one of the 19th century’s preeminent composers is clear. Despite his physical frailties, Bruckner worked assiduously on the Finale from 25 May 1895 to the very day of his death, 11 October 1896. A substantial portion of the surviving manuscript is fully orchestrated, with the sequentially numbered manuscript bifolios indicating an organic and substantially – perhaps fully – completed movement. Overall, the known sources comprise over 400 pages of material, including the fully orchestrated “late-stage” manuscript, representing about 600 bars of continuous music. Therefore it is inaccurate to describe the surviving material as a “sketch”—but rather as a torso, which has come down to us incomplete. Unfortunately, the manuscript is missing a number of pages – the numerical sequence is broken in five places – and the probable last pages, which would contain the Coda, are completely missing. It is possible that in the immediate days after Bruckner’s death, visitors and well-wishers at the composer’s apartment at Vienna’s Castle Belvedere helped themselves to a souvenir or two in the form of a manuscript page in the composer’s own handwriting, perhaps lifted right off of his piano where he had been working on that last day! The autograph manuscripts of movements 1-3 had been donated to the Vienna Court Library in 1895, when Bruckner moved from his apartment to what would turn out to be his final home, the Custodian’s Annex at Castle Belvedere in Vienna. Thus those manuscripts were properly preserved for posterity. On the other hand, the manuscript of the Finale, plus all of Bruckner’s preliminary drafts and sketches for the movement, were very much a work in progress, somewhat disorganized and dispersed throughout the composer’s working area in his apartment at the time of his death. The bulk of this material passed into the possession of the brothers Josef and Franz Schalk, while individual pages and sketches have ended up in scattered locations, including Poland and the United States!

What makes the plausible restoration of missing manuscript pages possible is the survival of much of Bruckner’s intermediate work, consisting of short-score or particello pages of continuous string parts with some indications of woodwinds. The various musicologists who have produced performing versions of the Finale thus have substantial material with which to work in filling in the gaps. It is significant that the two most well-known completions, by William Carragan and by the committee of Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John A. Phillips and Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs (SMPC for short), while working independently, have produced versions that sound in performance substantially the same for roughly twenty minutes of music, right up to the missing Coda. These are now joined by this new version “...based on original sources, supplemented, completed and premiered by Gerd Schaller.” I note that almost from the onset of the Finale, Schaller takes a more liberal approach to “filling in the gaps” of the missing manuscript pages. The basic structure of the music in these gaps can be plausibly reconstructed from the short-score particello sketches from Bruckner’s earlier stage of composition and by rigorous extrapolation from the ending measures of the previous bifolio and the starting measures of the following bifolio. Schaller is creative in his elaboration of the intermediate sketch material with added counterpoint, counter-melodies and imaginative orchestration, which again I find effective and convincing as an authentic extrapolation of Bruckner’s technique.

And what of the music? The short answer: it is inspired, prime, late Bruckner which should not be missed by anyone who appreciates this composer. The opening of the movement, emerging from the profound silence after the sustained pianissimo in the French horns that ends the Adagio, is a clear tribute to the “order emerging out of chaos” opening of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, the composer who was a primary inspiration for Bruckner. Bruckner conceived this Finale as sharing characteristics of the Finales of both Symphony 5 and 8, while breaking new ground in continuing the Ninth Symphony’s foreshadowing of 20th century musical evolution. In this Schaller is quite willing to revel in the dissonances of Bruckner’s harmony, including a reprise in his Coda of the famous ‘catastrophe’ dissonance at the climax of the Adagio. The Ninth Finale, like that of the Fifth, contains one of Bruckner’s most imposing and glorious Chorales, a major-key and resplendently-affirmative restatement of the melancholy ‘farewell to life’ theme first heard in the Adagio. Later Bruckner fashions a substantial Fugue from the jagged opening theme of the Finale. Themes from other works also appear in the Finale, including the opening string figuration and the ‘Aeterna fac’ motive of the Te Deum.

It is of course in the Coda where the differences between the performing versions are stark since the surviving material is slight, with only a few rudimentary sketches suggesting the Coda’s possible harmonic progression. I find that both Carragan and SMPC are effective in their approach to the daunting task of writing an appropriately Brucknerian ending to this most profound of Bruckner’s symphonies, yet understandably reticent. The challenge of fashioning the denouement to Bruckner’s symphonic odyssey is one that serious musicologists treat with utmost respect. That said, comparison with the work of Gerd Schaller reveals a greater willingness on his part to be more interventionist and fulsome in “Brucknerizing” a plausible Coda. Impressive moments include the climactic reintroduction of the magnificent theme of the first movement and a fortissimo reprise of the transcendent Chorale. This is very grand, very exciting music and ultimately for me, convincing. Of course we have no idea how the composer might have done this, absent the hypothetical missing pages; but it is safe to say that all three approaches under discussion provide a satisfying conclusion. There are a few, less well-known completions of this Finale available – by Nors Josephson, for one, available on Danacord with the Aarhus Symphony, John Gibbons conducting – which to my ears do not measure up to Carragan, SMPC and now Schaller.

It is both possible and legitimate to appreciate Bruckner solely as absolute music; however, ignoring or dismissing his deep Catholic faith and the influence this had on his entire life, his music, and his Weltanschauung is, in my opinion, a mistake that misses the point of this symphony, dedicated by the composer “to dear God” (“dem lieben Gott”) and intended, in my opinion, as a summation of his musical life – a musical life that was made explicit in the motto affixed to the title page of many of his scores, including his great Te Deum: O.A.M.D.G. or Omnia ad majorem Dei gloriam (“All to the Greater Glory of God”). The dedication of the Ninth makes clear that this is Bruckner’s ‘last will and testament’ – a public proclamation of religious faith from a man in failing health who knew that his time was limited, and conceived in the language with which the composer was supremely eloquent: music. In its four movements, we can discern the sequence of faith, doubt, conflict, death, redemption and resurrection. It is crucial to realize that without the Finale, Bruckner’s musical testament ends in death with a self-described “Abschied vom Leben” or “Farewell to Life.” With the Finale, we have redemption and resurrection, resolved musically in a blazing D Major affirmation. As a lover of Bruckner’s music for almost fifty years, I easily place this Finale among his most inspired creations, even considering the incomplete transmission of the score to our time.

The recorded sound is first-class and consistent with Bavarian Radio’s ongoing work with the Ebrach Music Festival over the course of eleven symphonies, the F Minor Mass and Psalm 146, with a wide and deep sound stage that accurately reproduces the ample acoustics of the Abbey Church while maintaining orchestral clarity. Audience noise is minimal and applause is omitted throughout. Gerd Schaller and his Philharmonie Festiva have done an outstanding job of presenting the entire Symphony 9 in a performance that stands comparison with the best. I am grateful to Profil for releasing this CD set as a major supplement to Schaller’s complete symphony cycle. Highly recommended!

For a rounded view of the four-movement Bruckner Ninth, some other recordings of a four-movement Ninth should be heard. My recommendations include Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), which features the SMPC score in its most recent 2012 revision by Samale and Cohrs. Personally, I find Rattle’s interpretation to be cold and uninvolved, but as a top-tier orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic must be considered; Kurt Eichhorn/Bruckner Orchestra Linz (Camerata), which features SMPC in its 1992 version. For me, this is one of the very best recorded and performed Bruckner 9s anywhere, and it has the added benefit of what I consider to be the superior 1992 version of the SMPC Finale, after which the committee dissolved; Gennadi Rozhdestvensky/USSR Ministry of Culture Orchestra (HDTT), which features Samale and Mazzuca 1984. This captures the early Finale completion by the two Italian musicologists before the formation of the four-man committee; Yoav Talmi/Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos), which features Carragan 1983. Along with Carragan’s first completion of the Finale, Talmi also performs the extant score material “as is”, leaving silence where the missing pages occur in the manuscript; and the earlier Gerd Schaller/Philharmonie Festiva Ebrach (Profil), which features Carragan’s latest Finale thoughts from 2010. The Camerata set conducted by Kurt Eichhorn is an exceptionally well-recorded performance of considerable weight, power and grandeur; and it includes a lengthy, highly detailed and scholarly English-language essay by musicologist John A. Phillips (the “P” of SMPC). This essay is essential reading for anyone interested in the history and structure of Bruckner’s Ninth, including a thorough discussion of the source materials for the Finale and a fascinating measure-by-measure description of the process of creating a performing version from Bruckner’s incomplete manuscript.

John Proffitt
Member, Board of Directors, Bruckner Society of America
Published with the cooperation of The Bruckner Journal
 
Previous review: Ralph Moore (Recording of the Month)

 




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