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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 9 (transcr. Organ Gerd Schaller) [85:25]
Gerd Schaller (organ)
rec. 2-5 November, 2019, Abteikirche, Ebrach, Upper Franconia, Germany. PROFIL PH21010 [36:58 + 48:27]
Prominent Brucknerian conductor and organist Gerd Schaller here performs his transcription for organ of Symphony No 9 in D minor and includes a fourth movement based on his 2018 revised orchestral version of the finale, reviewed here. There are of course precedents for such arrangements; other successful such projects include Matthew Giesen’s recording of the organ transcription of the Fifth Symphony made in St Florian and released on the Gramola label, which was also very favourably reviewed.
Maestro Schaller is keen to emphasise that this recording is not some kind of makeshift or stop-gap imposed upon him by the exigencies and deprivations of the current lockdown, but rather the realisation of his long-standing desire to transcribe and perform this great work and on Bruckner’s own instrument. The organ is Germany’s “Instrument of the Year 2021” and Schaller has a great attachment to the Eisenbarth instrument used here, which inevitably enhances the meditative and aesthetic qualities of this performance, recorded in the magnificent venue of the former Cistercian Abbey Church of Ebrach. According to the notes, which are a transcription of a conversation between him and freelance writer on music Andrea Braun, his aim was to reveal “the essential…core of the work”. There have also been piano transcriptions of the Ninth, as per the arrangement for two pianos included as a bonus to the recording of René Ballot’s live performance of the same work, reviewed here, but the organ was the instrument dearest to Bruckner’s heart and is in many ways better suited to transcription. However, Bruckner left no major compositions for organ, so in a sense a performance of this nature fills a gap.
Gerd Schaller seeks to exploit the organ’s “wealth of tone colours” which are so different from those of an orchestra but he does not attempt to reproduce orchestra textures. Rather, while retaining the original notes and harmonies, he tries to find the appropriately pared down sound which still conveys the majesty of the music in the form of an “organ symphony”. His aim is considerably assisted by the construction of an organ permitting so many permutations of sound, which Schaller describes as possessing both “a Baroque character and a Romantic character”, enabling a unique combination of clarity and richness.
His tempi are very similar to his orchestral recording; overall, this organ version is only a couple of minutes shorter than that and the bulk of that discrepancy resides in the slightly briefer finale. Otherwise, there is no denying that this transcription transports us into a very different sound-world from the orchestral original. The spare modernity of Bruckner’s harmonies and dissonances is heavily accentuated by the leaner textures here, so that first impressions of the music, necessarily played devoid of tremolo, are almost shockingly stark, whereas the grandeur and majesty of Bruckner’s rhythmically powerful main themes are underpinned by the sonority of the organ’s bass capability. Indeed, listening to this performance unfold constitutes a surprising journey; sometimes the variety in Schaller’s registration is so striking as to make the listener to wonder whether this is really the same piece that we are used to, yet at other moments there is such a consonance between the two versions that the organ sounds entirely right and natural. There is no denying the aptness and ingenuity of Schaller’s invention; nothing is done for cheap or gimmicky effect – which is why, for example, as he explains in the notes, he avoids over-use of the swell box, which would render the music trite and flashy – never qualities associated with good Bruckner playing.
Having said that, I find the Scherzo here to be the least successful of the four adapted movements, not through any fault of the transcription or its execution, but simply because a wind-powered pipe-instrument cannot hope – nor in any sense is designed - to reproduce the snap and bite of strings and timpani. The effect is rather soft-grained, a comparative deficiency accentuated by the success of the jaunty, flowing triplets of the Trio, in which the organ sounds entirely at home.
Conversely – and perhaps entirely predictably – the celebrated and enigmatic Adagio is more obviously suited to the solemn, hieratic and otherworldly compass of the organ and Schaller frequently employs a higher, flutier registration to suggest a heavenly choir. The magical change of key at 15:55 is all the more effective for being couched in a new, consolatory voice as if God the Father suddenly choose to speak and the climactic, dissonant dominant thirteenth twenty minutes in is staggering in its impact before a wonderfully serene coda.
The numerous completions, reconstructions, re-imaginings – what you will – of the finale continue to be controversial in the relatively exclusive world of Brucknerian scholarship and appreciation of them can be a divisive topic. Given that this transcription will already be a bridge too far for some purists, I cannot see that the inclusion of Gerd Schaller’s own recreation is especially contentious, as once the premise of transcription has been accepted, the fourth movement is an entirely natural adjunct to this adventurous undertaking. Speaking as one who thoroughly enjoys that finale in its orchestral form, I am delighted to encounter it here where, if anything, it seems even better suited to its arrangement for organ; I find it grand and thrilling. Schaller plays with enormous brio and there are no instances of dull “note-spinning”; he sustains momentum and propulsion throughout nearly twenty-four minutes, constantly building tension and eliciting glorious sound from his instrument. The final few minutes are momentous.
The engineering here is first-rate, the always suggesting the of the amplitude of the abbey without obscuring detail, although allowance must be made for the faint but constant background noise of the blower.
It has to be said that the audience for this release must be quite selective in that it must comprise of listeners who love both Bruckner and the King of Instruments - but both are honoured here with consummate skill and musicality in a decidedly unusual repertoire.