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

In 2007, Gerd Schaller began a complete cycle on the Profil label of the Bruckner symphonies recorded live in the Abteikirche Ebrach, unusually choosing to employ some editions which are rarely encountered, such as interim versions or variants which provide insights into Bruckner’s compositional method. Throughout the series, Schaller conducts the Philharmonie Festiva, founded in 2008 and consisting mainly of musicians from leading Munich orchestras, brought together for performances at the Ebracher Musiksommer festival.

Bruckner was plagued with torment, anguish and deteriorating health while writing his Ninth, a score he dedicated to God but never lived to complete, writing, “I have served my purpose on earth; I have done what I could, and there is only one thing I would still like to be granted: the strength to finish my Ninth Symphony.” Despite the physical decline and mental instability of Bruckner’s final years, his breath-taking writing feels remarkably assured, technically daring and harmonically formidable.

Right up until his death in 1896, Bruckner was working on the fourth movement (Finale) of the Ninth, leaving behind material in a fragmentary state. Clearly believing that he wouldn’t complete it, Bruckner advised that his Te Deum could be substituted instead as the final movement. There have been a number of completions of that unfinished fourth movement based on Bruckner’s surviving manuscripts, notably a performing version completed by William Carragan premiered in 1983 with subsequent revisions. Other completions which have been undertaken include those by Nicola Samale, John Phillips, Giuseppe Mazzuca and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs (1985-2008/rev. 2010), Nors S. Josephson (1992), Sébastien Letocart (2008) and also this from Gerd Schaller (2016, rev. 2018).

Schaller has now recorded three separate performances of four-movement versions of the Ninth: initially, in 2010, the completion by William Carragan, then Schaller’s own completion using Bruckner’s own fragmentary sources, notably sketches, drafts and a fully scored sheet which he supplemented for his completion; for this new 2018 recording, Schaller has revised his own 2016 completion. It makes complete sense that Schaller, a renowned Bruckner specialist, having had the experience of performing his own completion, would wish to review, revise and enhance his first thoughts. For the three completed movements, he uses the 1894 original version edited by Leopold Nowak (1951), the most widely used version chosen for recordings by eminent conductors such as Abbado, Barenboim, Bernstein, Celibidache, Eschenbach, Gergiev, Giulini, Haitink, Jochum, Karajan, Thielemann and Wand.

I have heard the Ninth in its three-movement form several times in live concert and many times on record, but find this to be a work which, in the right hands, still has the ability to convey a sense of awe. I recall a glorious performance in 2016 from the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Marek Janowski which was part of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, with those magnificent waves of sound reverberating around the Frauenkirche. Some months ago, at the Musikfest Berlin 2018, I enjoyed a similarly striking performance with Valery Gergiev conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker in the Philharmonie.

Patently undaunted by the scale of the task, which lasts here a demanding eighty-seven minutes, Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva tackle Bruckner’s awesome structures with considerable concentration, resolve and assurance, creating a powerful orchestral sonority. In terms of dynamic, pace and overall control, Schaller conducts with abiding intelligence, employing all the vast experience he has gained from both performing and undertaking academic research into Bruckner scores. Schaller’s approach is bold and highly effective: crucially, he places firm emphasis on consistency of tempo and responding to Bruckner’s vast dynamic contrasts, with the lovely quiet sections rising to incandescent climaxes of extraordinary potency. Especially noticeable in the opening movement is the remarkable weight and power when at points of culmination it feels as if surging waves of orchestral force are pushing me back into my chair. Conspicuous is the prevailing character of spiralling tension and dark foreboding that Schaller infuses into the extremely disconcerting Scherzo. Never has the description of “cathedrals of sound” been more appropriate. Forming such an integral part of the orchestra it feels as if the sonorous brass, including the splendid Wagner tubas, have been dipped in molten gold. The sublime Adagio is characterised by the sense of resignation of death and intense emotion which convey a near-spiritual quality. Schaller’s revised Finale marked Bewegt, doch nicht schnell (Moving, but not too quickly) is extremely persuasive and, of course based on Bruckner’s own sketches, seems totally sympathetic to his distinctive soundworld. The main theme and chorale-like episode are compelling, as is the subsequent ‘Gesangsperiode’. From 4:49, the Schlußgruppe (closing section) sounds both magnificent and astonishing. Throughout the performance, the string playing is spine-tingling, of an elevated standard encountered only in the finest orchestras. I feel compelled to repeat how magnificent those Wagner tubas sound!

The engineering team has provided first class sound with excellent clarity and the climaxes are nicely captured without any distortion. Although they sound entirely satisfactory, a golden tone from the strings would have made the recording near perfection. The audience stays remarkably quiet throughout and the applause at the conclusion has been taken out. Gerd Schaller himself has written the excellent booklet essay which goes into copious detail about his Finale completion and subsequent revision, a revealing exercise that is eminently readable.   

This is a gloriously fresh and spontaneous performance, notable for its clarity, resilient forward impetus and mighty climaxes, which makes a resounding impact and the Philharmonie Festiva under Gerd Schaller is in quite remarkable form. Schaller’s revised Finale completion is certainly worthy of praise and an impressive achievement, proving a cogent and fascinating indication of what might have been had Bruckner lived. In truth, I still find the completed three movements a satisfying experience, however if I ever needed confirmation of the value of a Finale completion, this is it. Schaller’s account is up there in the highest echelons with my first-choice recordings of the traditional three movement version of the Ninth. For their towering level of thrilling intensity and polished playing, there are three recordings that I usually reach for first, all using the 1894 original version (ed. Nowak 1951): the live 1998 Philharmonie, Berlin account from Günter Wand conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker on BMG/RCA Red Seal, the 1964 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin performance also from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Eugen Jochum on Deutsche Grammophon and Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra recorded live in 2013 at Lucerne Concert Hall on Deutsche Grammophon.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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