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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1894 original version, ed. Nowak 1951, finale based on original sources supplemented and completed by Gerd Schaller, revised version 2018) [87:22]
Philharmonie Festiva / Gerd Schaller
rec. live 22 July, 2018, Abteikirche, Ebrach, Upper Franconia, Germany
PROFIL PH18030 [37:09+50:13]

I have attended enough of Gerd Schaller’s Bruckner performances to assert confidently that he has a gift for generating the kind of numinous, metaphysical tension the music requires to bloom; meanwhile, along the way, the sound engineers of Studio Franken and, as per here, the Profil label, have learned how to capture the reverberant acoustic of the Abteikirche, Ebrach, thereby ensuring that the symphonies emerge as majestic, unhurried works without taming either the fierce originality of the music or the spaciousness of the venue. This organic unity stems from Schaller’s longstanding empathy with Bruckner’s aesthetic, his rapport with orchestras comprised of some of the finest musicians in Munich and further afield, and his scholarly insistence upon doing honour and service to the spirit of Bruckner’s music, setting aside all considerations of ego.

Schaller gave us his first thoughts on completing the fourth movement in 2016, which John Proffitt and I both reviewed here, respectively: review ~ review. Since then, dissatisfied with what was nonetheless already a magnificent achievement, Maestro Schaller has periodically returned to the task to implement further changes and refinements. That first recording, in the view of most impartial and Bruckner enthusiasts, put to bed both the suggestion of Schaller’s “presumption” in attempting such a task and any question over the validity of the final product. After all, the simple option, if objections remained, was simply not to listen to it and reassume the default position of stopping after the sublime Adagio. However, given the interest and pleasure afforded by Schaller’s completion, his desire further to improve and enhance it will seem only reasonable to those already convinced by the first attempt.

In his extensive essay, Schaller plausibly argues that his work cannot be construed as a “reconstruction” as he could not reasonably be expected to reconstruct something which had probably never existed, let alone been lost. There never was a complete final movement and even if there had been, the waters would doubtless have been further muddied by Bruckner’s compulsion to revise. The first priority was to use as much of Bruckner’s original material as possible and to ensure that whatever additional music was composed would be consonant with Bruckner’s late compositional style and not violate any discernible principles of structure. The booklet provides a detailed analysis of the manner in which the sections of the new, completed finale are inter-related and the rationale behind the choices Schaller has made; I leave more forensic observations to musicologists and will comment only on how I, as an amateur devotee of Bruckner, respond to the result.

The unique aspect of this latest release from Profil resides not only in the fact that it is the premiere of Schaller’s revised completion but that it is the third recording in a series of different versions of the finale: first, the live-performance recording from the 2012 Ebrach Festival concert of William Carragan’s completion; second, Schaller’s first completion recorded in 2016 and, thirdly, this latest account of his revised thoughts; no other conductor has such a discography. Obviously the first three movements of the 2012, 2016 and 2018 recordings all use the same Nowak score and one would hardly expect to discern any great interpretative differences between them. Their timings are indeed similar but the Scherzo has become progressively faster and more urgent, in the Adagio Schaller has returned to the slightly broader concept of 2012, which I like, and the 2018 finale is now marginally longer than in 2016. Above all, as much as I found both of Schaller’s earlier recordings to be gripping, he has certainly infused the latest with even greater drama and urgency. I have rarely heard a more profound and absorbing account of the Adagio, yet Schaller is equal master of the “divine madness” of the Scherzo. I also prefer the immediacy of the sound of the new recording over its predecessors, good as they were; there is greater clarity and separation of instrumental strands without losing any depth or richness. These refinements and improvements are only to be expected as natural developments given that the conductor, the members of the Philharmonie Festiva and the sound engineers involved such as Lutz Wildner have lived with the music and learned and grown via their various contributions to these projects.

But what of the changes Schaller has made to the last movement since last June? The experience of rehearsing and performing his completion has convinced him of the need to revise the orchestration to make it, in his own words, “more concentrated and focused… eliminat[ing] superfluous additions”, while “in other passages the instrumentation is much richer”, thereby enhancing the contrast between sections and strengthening the compositional structure. This “less is more” approach fosters an avoidance of a feature of some completions whereby the finale becomes overloaded, both thematically and from the point of view of orchestration, as the completionists insist upon including every fragment of what were, after all, only tentative and exploratory fragments which Bruckner might eventually have jettisoned. Some clearly audible changes have been made to the apotheosis of the coda, which was already thrilling, and of course the coda necessarily contains the most new material in any completion, as the surviving sketches were so scanty, offering little more than possible harmonic progressions. It is there that Schaller reprises the famous “catastrophe” dissonance first heard in the Adagio but he already had Bruckner’s sketches indicating the shape of the chorale, a major-key restatement of the “farewell to life” theme from the Adagio, and of the fugue based on the leaping opening theme of the Finale. Themes from the Te Deum are also identifiable but there is every indication that Bruckner was shying away from devising some kind of melodic bridge to the Te Deum itself, not least because the C major conclusion seems all wrong as a progression from a symphony in D minor; a D major apotheosis is required – and surely a mere transposition would have been crass.

A major breakthrough for Schaller came as a result of his decision to ignore later drafts and try to fill in the five major gaps in the finale before the missing coda by returning to Bruckner’s earlier sketches. These actually provided a clearer compositional framework and, again in his words, allowed him “to draw on an important additional source of essential Brucknerian ideas, and … elaborate the fugue, for example, or compile the recapitulation.” Thus, in the Gesangsperiode, he uses an earlier sketch and ignores the key principle of the SPCM reconstruction which insists that every note Bruckner left on the day of his death must be incorporated into any reworking; my instinct is that Schaller’s decisions are musically more desirable and closer to what would have happened anyway had Bruckner continued with its composition. This allows him to remedy what is perceived by some as the weakness in the SPCM completion: a certain encroaching shapelessness as the movement unfolds.

The opening here is certainly grander, gloomier and more emphatic than the previous recording, with a more pointed articulation of the jagged, falling first theme. While still placing the fugue at the heart of the movement, after the Gesangsperiode, Schaller recapitulates with that main theme, allowing him to avoid resorting to the kind of rag-bag of borrowings and fragments which can sound aimless. For me, this instead confers directness and unity on the movement; this is a virtue sustained by the relative simplicity of his coda compared with those who try to pack in everything and more than Bruckner wrote with an overlay of themes. Beginning the coda with a clear reference to the opening of the symphony and juxtaposing it with the “Departure from life” theme from the Adagio further enhances cohesiveness; the sense of culminating ecstasy resulting from the combination of three different, descending figures from the Te Deum, the Adagio and the first movement before the music rises to a vast, triumphant brass fanfare, is overwhelming. Wonderful though it was, the steady, Wagnerian grandeur of the first version is superseded in glory and impetus by the even more radiant climax here.

Inevitably responses to the choices Schaller has made will be deeply varied and subjective, but if you are open to the very idea of a reconstructed fourth movement, played to a superlative standard by a dedicated Brucknerian who remains humble and respectful of Bruckner’s genius, I urge you to listen to this recording. As much as I esteem previous recordings of other completions, including the Wildner account of the SPCM version on Naxos and Schaller’s own recording of the estimable Carragan completion, this new issue trumps all others in terms of both sound and concept.

Ralph Moore

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