Gerd Schaller conducts Anton Bruckner – Symphony 1

4 of 5 stars

Bruckner
Symphony No. 1 in C-minor [1891 Vienna version]

Philharmonie Festiva
Gerd Schaller

Recorded in Regentenbau (Max-Littmann-Saal),
Bad Kissingen
Co-production Profil Medien/Bayerischer Rundfunk

Live recording – 26 May 2019


Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: May 2020
CD No: PROFIL PH19084
Duration: 50 minutes 30 seconds

In the case of Anton Bruckner, nearly everything he wrote was work-in-progress. Even when he wasn’t being persuaded by well-meaning and not so well-intentioned contemporaries to make changes to his compositions, he actively pursued the idea that his own improvements (Verbesserungen) might conceivably aid reception. This was what happened with his First Symphony, which did not appear until he was in his forties and was not given its first performance until 1868. This Linz version was subjected to minor additions and alterations in 1877 and 1884 (the second movement Adagio) before undergoing a more comprehensive revision and emerging as the Vienna version (dedicated to the university there, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate). Its conductor at the premiere in December 1891, Hans Richter, had urged Bruckner not to make too many changes since “it was fine as it was”.

Over time, the composer’s initial flurries of inspiration have been deemed to be preferable to second thoughts. Robert Simpson for one was not at all complimentary about the Vienna version, claiming that it “betrays the composer’s nervousness and perhaps his state of health”. In fact, this version was the only one that was performed until the Linz version resurfaced in the 1930s. Leading conductors have given preference to it, and until recently only one – Claudio Abbado – had recorded both versions, with 43 years separating the Linz version put down in Vienna in 1969 from the 2012 performance of the Vienna in Lucerne, using the modern critical version by Günter Brosche.

Gerd Schaller has now added a recording of the Vienna version to his earlier one of the Linz in the William Carragan edition. In an interview accompanying the liner notes, he argues that most of the changes affect the orchestration and are not especially significant. The Linz was recorded in the somewhat reverberant acoustic of the 12th century Cistercian Abbey in Ebrach, and one reason for doing the later version was the opportunity to stage it in different surroundings, this time in the wood-panelled shoe-box design of the Max Littmann auditorium (40 metres long and 16 metres high), completed in 1913. As before, Schaller conducts his own Philharmonie Festiva, which he founded in 2008, principally for his own concert and recording projects. As with the players used for the Bayreuth Festival, this ensemble draws on musicians from leading German orchestras. With the publication of this Vienna version, Schaller’s plan to record all Bruckner’s works in time for the bicentenary of his birth in 2024 is now nearing completion.

Early Bruckner is in many respects markedly different from the late works. The First Symphony doesn’t sound much like Beethoven or Wagner, the two composers said to have had the greatest influence on him, and there are no major chorales or Generalpausen (which emerge in the Second Symphony), nor is the work launched with a string tremolo. It does, however, have those passages of stormy intensification (Steigerungen) which are used as typical musical signposting: throughout the score there are repeated poco a poco crescendo markings.

To start with the positives: this recording benefits from a beautifully balanced and warm sound that reveals a great deal of inner detail, with no spotlighting of individual instruments, unlike the woodwind in Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s 1984 performance for Melodiya. The timpani, for instance, is always in the picture when it matters, but only then. Astonishingly, for what is billed as a live recording, there is absolutely no audience noise whatever, never mind applause at the end. The quality of Schaller’s players is more apparent in the woodwind and brass than in the strings, which lack the magnificent heft and indeed tonal richness of Abbado’s acclaimed 2012 Lucerne performance. There is a lightness to the string sound which suggests that Schaller might have been using less than the standard 60-player complement. To some extent this plays to what Schaller has identified as one of Bruckner’s defining characteristics, his ability to move from chamber-like transparency to a full-throated orchestral roar. It is the former though, rather than the latter, which leaves a more lasting impression in this recording.

In the first movement Schaller is more relaxed than either Riccardo Chailly, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in 1988, or Günter Wand, conducting what was then the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra seven years earlier. Though he yields to both the Italians, Abbado and Chailly, in terms of the cumulative power of the Steigerungen, with the brass delivering less of a satisfying release in fortissimo passages, the moments of relaxation and repose are very persuasive. Some five minutes into the movement, the evocation of birdsong from the silvery flutes is one example of Schaller’s sensitive realisation of a woodland sound-world, and together with contributions from the ripe horns there are echoes of the earlier Romantic Weber. In the skipping string lines that usher in the coda, conjuring up pictures of the village young heading for verdant pastures, energy levels pick up but even so do not make the blood race in quite the way that Abbado’s sense of wild abandon does at this juncture.

The Adagio brings wonderfully atmospheric woodwind from the start, the luminous flutes joined by dark and woody clarinets and a pastoral oboe. Towards the close Schaller captures the filigree effects of woodwind and brass, creating a kind of elfin-like panorama. What I miss, however, is an awareness of organic growth: the green shoots in the fertile soil never really develop into sturdy seedlings, while the curves of those Steigerungen are too often flattened out.

In the Scherzo Schaller is less incisive than his rivals, the twists, swirls and curlicues in the writing much less infectious than with Chailly. The Trio section brings quite a brisk tempo, at odds with Bruckner’s basic marking of langsam (slow), with the later admonition nicht zu schnell (not too fast). Not much hint here of any heat haze on a lazy summer’s day.

The character of the Finale, with contrasts between bustling energy (“fiery” is one of Bruckner’s two principal instructions) and a gentler ruminative atmosphere, requires an even-handed approach. Schaller is alive to the subterranean murmurings from the lower strings (the bass line is always clearly defined in the performance as a whole) and the veins of darker lyricism suggestive of Dvořák’s Bohemian woods (expressive sighs from the oboe), but he doesn’t quite unlock the dramatic potential that Abbado finds in the score.

Altogether, Schaller is unfailingly musical in his approach, devoid of any mannerisms or idiosyncrasies, but ultimately he falls short of that sense of inner conviction which makes you sit up and think that this is a greater work than it actually is.

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