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Anton BRUCKNER (1824 – 1896)
Complete Symphonies
Mass No. 3
Psalm 146
Organ Works
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, July 2007 – July 2016, Abteikirche, Ebrach, Upper Franconia and Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen (D minor Symphony & Nos. 1 & 4 Volksfest finale), Germany.
PROFIL MEDIEN PH17024 [18 CDs: ca 17 hrs]

These are all live recordings, co-productions with the BR Klassik label of the Bavarian Radio, made mostly during the Ebrachmusicksommer festival at the Abbey Church in the little Franconian town of Ebrach every year except 2009, and 2014, between July 2007 and July 2016. Three of the recordings – the D minor Symphony and nos.1 and 4 (with the Volksfest finale) – were located at the Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen.

They have all previously been very positively reviewed on the MusicWeb International website either by me or by my reviewing colleagues, but this is their first issue collected together in a bargain box. There is no shortage of bargain Bruckner cycles for anyone wanting to acquire them in a convenient package, but this handsome 18 CD box set offers some unique selling points in addition to the intrinsic musical quality of the expert playing and conducting by Bruckner specialist Gerd Schaller: the works are recorded in an acoustic of the kind Bruckner envisaged when he wrote them; the set includes live performances of “less well-known, ‘interim’ versions or variants that had previously never been performed but give revealing insights into Bruckner’s compositional approach”; in addition to the complete symphonies we get the Mass no. 3, Psalm 146, several organ works and a bonus of Otto Kitzler’s Trauermusik in memory of the composer.

The recordings of the Third in its first revised form of 1874 and the Eighth in the interim version of 1888 are both world premieres; furthermore, two versions of the Fourth and two different completions of the Ninth are included; those features alone should be sufficient to persuade the Bruckner enthusiast to invest.

Rather than re-hash the content of those previous reviews, I refer the reader to the following links and have reproduced my reviews which did not appear on MWI:

F minor: review
D minor Die Nullte: review
Nos. 1, 2 & 3: review
Nos. 4, 7 & 9: review
No. 9 (Schaller completion): review
Mass, Psalms: review

No. 4 with the Volksfest finale:
Although it is with the same orchestra drawn from Munich bands, this live recording of the Fourth is rather different from the one Schaller made six years earlier of his live performance at the Ebrach Festival, in that it of course avoids the reverberant abbey acoustic which bothers some listeners but, more importantly, uses the second, 1878 version with the Volksfest final, which is five minutes shorter and hence more compact, and was ultimately discarded by Bruckner. As you might expect, otherwise timings and interpretation are very similar.

Both recordings are indeed very fine: the playing is sonorous and assured, with especially fine brass and woodwind and a lovely glow to the strings, but the balances here are better. The 1880 finale we now usually hear has been criticised for its diffuseness and the slight incongruity of its attempt to incorporate themes from all three preceding movements and is indeed perhaps fair to observe that it is amongst the less successful of Bruckner's concluding movements. I'm not sure that the Volksfest resolves that problem any better, in that while there is some brief allusion by the four horns to preceding material in the first movement, it otherwise first presents a cosier, folksier, more light-hearted aspect which is not necessarily consonant with the "Romantic" mood and programmatic content specifically narrated by Bruckner in his letters; it ends up being no more part of an organic progression than the later finale. However, it is more of a piece and in its closing pages shares material with the movement which replaced it some very similar music: shimmering strings underpinning an assertive brass figure providing a suitably grand and climactic conclusion.

Bruckner devotees will want this for the variant offered and also for the sheer quality of the interpretation; the whole of Schaller's Bruckner cycle is highly desirable.

No. 5 (reproduced here by kind permission of the Bruckner Journal):
Broadly speaking, recordings of this symphony divide into two groups: those which embrace the more monolithic approach, employing steady speeds to build a granitic structure redolent of the by now clichéd image of Bruckner's "cathedral of sound" and the more fluid, free-flowing interpretations which value the dramatic over the numinous. Of course, such a distinction is crude, and one stance is not necessarily exclusive of the other, but it serves to provide a backdrop to assessing this current recording, which in fact sits squarely on the fence and might for some constitute the perfect via media between the two extremes.

For purposes of comparison, I listened to half a dozen recordings in my collection and found that Schaller did indeed represent the compromise position between faster, fleeter versions such as those by Rögner conducting the Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester Berlin in 1983-84 and the young Franz Welser-Möst directing the LPO in Vienna in 1993, and, in the other category, the more grandiose recordings by such as Karajan and, more recently, Thielemann, both of whom take well over 80 minutes. Schaller is closer in timings to conductors such as Sawallisch, although I would say that by reason of the venue of this recording and Schaller's shaping of phrases, he has a foot firmly in both camps.

His previous recordings from the Ebrach Festival have already familiarised us with the special quality of the spacious acoustic provided by Abteikirche. The Abbey lends a reverberation of some five or six seconds, which is hardly inappropriate to a symphony that has been given the sobriquets "Medieval", "Catholic" and "Church of Faith" in addition to more prosaic nicknames like "Pizzicato". The recording as it stands has a burnished glow to it, especially in the horns, that confers a hieratic dignity on proceedings. However, while nobody is as grand and majestic as Karajan in 1976, it is important to remember that verticality is not the whole story here; this symphony is full of humour and quirkiness as well as spiritual striving. Microphone placement must have been cunning, as instrumental details emerge cleanly and there is virtually no audience noise, yet there is huge depth to the sound and the listener is still aware of the sense of cavernous space.

Schaller's gift is for finding the juste milieu without exaggeration or understatement. It helps that he is directing such a fine ensemble as the Philharmonie Festiva, comprising members of the main Munich orchestras supplemented by hand-picked musicians from all over Germany. Time and again, one is aware of the technical mastery of these musicians, from the extraordinary sonority of the last two minutes of the first movement, to the thrumming buzz of the violas in the opening of the Adagio, sounding like a swarm of bees, to the raw impudence of the clarinet's interjections at the start of the Finale. At so many points in this performance, I find myself thinking that Schaller has judged matters perfectly: to take but one example, the mysterious conclusion to the Adagio with its pizzicato underpinning of the repeated melody from different wind instruments is so elegantly managed. Incidentally, it is here that we encounter the only really noticeable textual variant, as Schaller takes the option indicated in the last two bars in the preface to the Eulenburg print of Nowak's score and in the more recent revised edition of Nowak, having the flute take the alternative, repeated high A's over the pizzicato and the clarinet descend to a low D. There is no indication of what edition of the score is being played here but I am assuming that it is that latest Nowak edition, revised by Cohrs in 2005, of Bruckner's 1878 final revision. Harnoncourt has followed this alternative, but I am not aware of any other recordings that do so.

However, Schaller does not make the mistake perpetrated by Harnoncourt and only narrowly avoided by Welser-Möst of making the Adagio almost an Andante, thereby losing the measured grandeur of the movement and he shapes the entrance of the Big Tune just over two minutes in really beautifully, if not with quite the ripeness and affection of Karajan or Thielemann. The Scherzo is released and rumbustious, at times almost riotous, which is surely how this music should be, achieving a judicious balance between rustic galumphing and Dionysian revelry in a manner redolent of Beethoven's Pastoral. It is that variety of mood which constitutes the antidote to Bruckner as liturgy. The Finale similarly catches the humour of the clarinet emulating Till Eulenspiegel and cheekily interjecting a theme that first sounds so perkily banal but will ultimately be developed into a monumental chorale and double fugue. Interestingly, Schaller demonstrates in his interpretation that he shares with Thielemann a particularly acute understanding of the value of rests and pauses in Bruckner's music; it is precisely when nothing is happening that one is most aware of the cumulative tension being generated. The last movement is simply triumphant: an inexorable progress towards a stunning peroration.

This is not the lean, propulsive Bruckner of Rögner, Welser-Möst, Harnoncourt and Sawallisch but is closer in mood to Karajan, Giulini and Thielemann, yet its insistence upon drama and momentum emphasises its Wagnerian qualities; more than once I found myself recalling the Preludes of Acts II and III of Die Walküre.

No. 6:
This recording from August 2013 completes the cycle of live recordings of performances made over six years by Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festival Orchestra at the summer festivals held in Ebrach Abbey in Upper Franconia.

Prospective purchasers need to be aware of the decisions made to perform the editions and completions by William Carragan and the fact that the acoustic of the Abteickirche is very rich and resonant, with a degree of opaqueness attached. The standard of conducting and orchestral playing remains superb throughout and there is virtually no audience noise.

This performance presents no great surprises; it is essentially a sane, middle-of-the-road account with timings similar to celebrated recordings by of Sawallisch and Klemperer, except that the former is considerably brisker in the first movement and the latter some three minutes faster than both Sawallisch and Schaller in the Adagio. Indeed, I think it is in that propulsive first movement where Sawallisch continues to score over rivals. Although Schaller is certainly “majestoso”, he misses the drive which makes Sawallisch’s interpretation special and different; Sawallisch generates more intensity through his more positive and interventionist moulding of phrases which paradoxically allows the lyricism of Bruckner’s melodies to emerge more strikingly, whereas Schaller is content to let the music flow on its way. Klemperer, by contrast, despite the same overall timing, finds more monumental grandeur in the music. Nonetheless, Schaller’s control of dynamics is masterly, his pacing suggests a real overview and he delivers real weight at the massive brass choral at 4’41” and again at 8’41; in many ways, despite my slight reservations surrounding that opening movement, this is an exemplary version.

Despite the fact that Bruckner referred to it as “Die Kechste” (the cheekiest) of his symphonies, I do not respond to the apparently established idea that this symphony is somehow lighter or more pastoral than the symphonies which precede it; to me, this sounds like the typically “absolute music” of the mature Bruckner delineating a titanic struggle to reach the light, not some programmatic homage to Nature, although I concede that there is an element of lilting, bucolic charm in the Trio and the Adagio is certainly as serene and reposeful as a glorious sunset. The playing of the Philharmonie here is tender and exquisite. Otherwise, there is much militaristic tension in the music of the outer movements; the Scherzo is sharply accented and the horns are glorious.

The fourth movement might not be among the most coherent or even the best of Bruckner’s finales, insofar as it misses the climactic inevitability and sense of arrival that we hear in the finales of other, later symphonies and it collection of motifs can seem a tad random, but Schaller finds urgency and nobility in the music, persuading the listener that there is a proper sense of direction in this movement and eschewing any sense of arbitrariness in the return to the tonic and providing a real sense of homecoming.

For many, the recordings of Sawallisch and Klemperer will remain supreme, but seen within the context of the whole cycle this Sixth is a worthy completion of a fine and fascinating undertaking.

No. 8:
This recording forms a superb contribution to the complete series and is of great musical and musicological interest. The acoustic of the Ebrach Abbey translates very well into a recording, creating a grand, imposing sound without blurring detail and the quality of the orchestral playing by an orchestra assembled from the best Munich bands, is phenomenal. Schaller has a deft sense of timing and phrasing and seems rarely to make a misjudgment; anyone new to Bruckner could pick up these recordings and be in possession of a superb introduction to his inimitable symphonic style. Messing about with making choices between performing editions can come later, once the music itself has been encountered, absorbed and loved but I guess it is important for any prospective buyer to be aware of what is on offer here, and again, Ken Ward's review clarifies that admirably: this is not a version which Bruckner himself envisaged as such but a judicious assemblage of his ideas in progress as they were set down on individual manuscripts between the first performance in 1887 and the revisions over the next year or so. The Adagio in particular is different, being essentially the intermediary version before the composition of the one we usually hear today, which was written as late as 1889; some prefer it and I can hear why. I don't think Schaller quite achieves the transcendence of Karajan in his last recording with the VPO but it's still a majestic performance; especially striking is the new passage for horns just before the cymbal crash. The Finale is simply terrific, too.

The bonus Trauermusik is interesting without being especially memorable, but it is a nice tribute to the composer, elegantly scored by the conductor here from the surviving piano MS.

Worth hearing and buying whether you're a Bruckner tyro or tyrannosaurus.

Ralph Moore

NB: CD 1 is mislabelled on the front of its cardboard slipcase as Symphony No. 1; it should be as per the reverse here:
CD 1: Symphony in F minor (Study Symphony) (1863) [43:23]
Edition: Gerd Schaller
CD 2: Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Early Linz version 1866) [51:34]
Edition: William Carragan
CD 3: Symphony in D minor WAB 100 (1869) – Die Nullte (1869) [43:29]
Edition: Gerd Schaller
CD 4: Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Version 1872) [70:21]
Edition: William Carragan
CD 5: Symphony No. 3 in D minor (Version 1874) [70:24]
Edition: William Carragan – World Premiere Recording
CD 6: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (1878/1880 version) [65:43]
Edition: Leopold Nowak
CD 7: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (1878/1880 version with Volksfest finale 1878) [60:11]
Edition: William Carragan/Leopold Nowak
CD 8: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major [72:52]
Edition: Leopold Nowak
CD 9: Symphony No. 6 in A major [57:30]
Edition: Leopold Nowak
CD 10: Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883) [64:52]
Edition: Leopold Nowak
CDs 11 [61:14] & 12 [38:15]: Symphony No. 8 (Variant of 1888) [85:42]
Edition: William Carragan – World Premiere Recording
Otto KITZLER senior (1834-1915) & Otto KITZLER junior (1863-1931)
Trauermusik (1906) (orch. Gerd Schaller) [13:37]
CDs 13 [36:54] & 14 [46:47]: Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1896) [83:41]
(Finale completed by William Carragan in 2010 revised version)
Edition: Leopold Nowak
CDs 15 [36:56] & 16 [47:46]: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1887-1896) [84:42]
Four-movement version, with Finale completed by Gerd Schaller
Edition: Leopold Nowak
CD 17: Bruckner - Mass No. 3 in F Minor (1868) [60:21]
Edition: Leopold Nowak
CD18: Psalm 146 & Organ Works [56:48]
Psalm 146 (1858?) [30:03]
Edition: Gerd Schaller
Ania Vegry (soprano); Franziska Gottwald (alto); Clemens Bieber (tenor); Timo Riihauen (bass); Philharmonischer Chor München, Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
Organ Works [26:29]:
Bruckner’s Bad Ischl improvisation sketches 1890, completed as “Festmusik” by Erwin Horn [8:35]
Andante in D minor (WAB 130) [1:49]
Postlude in D minor (WAB 126) [4:07]
Prelude and Fugue in C minor (WAB 131) [5:54]
Fugue in D minor (WAB 125) [3:58]
Prelude in C minor (WAB 129) [2:06]
Gerd Schaller (organ)



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