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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Vienna version 1891)
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, 26 May 2019, Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen
PROFIL PH19084 [50:30]

This account of Bruckner’s First Symphony is really very different from Gerd Schaller’s previous recording eight years ago, for reasons of both version and venue: that 2011 performance was of William Carragan’s reconstruction of the original 1866 version and recorded in the grand, reverberant space of the Abteikirche in Ebrach; this latest one is of Bruckner’s revision of the score made a quarter of a century later and performed in the much cleaner, clearer acoustic of the Regentenbau.

This so-called “Vienna version” – the revision was first performed there – was reviled by Robert Simpson as fussy, cluttered and overworked; he finds Bruckner guilty of creating incongruity by overlaying the simplicity of his youthful inspiration with the stylistic complexity of his later symphonies. Furthermore, the time Bruckner spent reworking it is resented by Brucknerians who wish he had devoted his energies to completing the Ninth instead of needlessly tinkering with an old score. Despite having already made some alterations in 1877 and 1884, Bruckner wanted to implement some further “Verbesserungen” (improvements), especially in the orchestration and he was pleased with the results: “Besser kann I’s Beserl nimmer instrumentier’n” – “I couldn’t have orchestrated the Wench better.” The questions of whether the score needed it and whether the conflation of the youthful and mature Bruckner in the symphony’s reincarnation is a happy one remain debatable, but both the composer and the conductor here clearly liked it and I can attest to having thoroughly enjoyed the live performance last May, as did the audience.

This was invariably the version of the symphony performed before the publication of the so-called “Linz version” which Schaller has already recorded. That score is certainly lighter and more transparent, but eminent conductors such as Wand and Abbado (in Lucerne) continued to find merit in, and perform, the later version and both the acoustic of hall mentioned above and Schaller’s manner in this performance certainly help to offset any undue congestion and to balance the element of discursiveness which some find to be inherent to the structure of the finale. Indeed, the two things which immediately struck me as I first listened to the martial opening were the richness of the recorded sound, even though we tend to take good engineering for granted these days, and the sonority of the playing. Schaller has a gift for maintaining good balance and linear continuity in orchestras under his command, but despite the textural clarity of this performance, his insistence upon lending extra weight to proceedings is such that the symphony seems less of a youthful effusion and more a precursor to Bruckner’s mature masterpieces. He also has soloist musicians of the highest calibre; the horn and flute solos in particular are superb. Careful gradation of the dynamics of the long crescendo leading up to the climax of the third subject in the first movement means that it packs even more punch. This, in combination with the heft of orchestral tone and the menace of that opening march, renders Bruckner’s nickname for his symphony of “Saucy Wench” even more incomprehensible – or perhaps even more overtly ironic.

As in Schaller’s previous recording of the First, the Adagio is exceptionally spacious, free-flowing and lyrical; he finds the spaciousness and nobility which Abbado misses in his 1969 recording of the Linz version and which Karajan, too, captures so triumphantly. There is some lovely string playing in the arpeggiated section leading up to a very satisfying climax underscored by the brass and the closing bars are suffused with a dreamy serenity. The contrast between that ethereal conclusion and the ensuing demonic, pounding Scherzo – so typical of Bruckner and predictive of the nature of that movement in his subsequent symphonies – could hardly be greater, but both are linked by the weightiness Schaller deliberately imparts to them. That bite carries over into the opening, syncopated, dotted-rhythm phrases of the finale, whose obsessive, repeated restatement of that same rhythmic figure throughout the development can result in a sense of incoherence, but Schaller is undaunted and manages to confer a sense of purpose and unity upon the movement, building to a thrilling and wholly convincing C major peroration.

This might not be everyone’s favourite version of Bruckner’s First Symphony, but the very least that might be said of this splendid recording is that it makes the strongest possible case for its consideration – or even its rehabilitation.

Ralph Moore

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