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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major, arranged (1921) for small ensemble by Hanns Eisler, Erwin Stein and Karl Rankl
Thomas Christian Ensemble (Alois Brandhofer, clarinet; Andrew Joy, horn; Thomas Christian and Melina Mandozzi, violins; Ferdinand Erblich, viola; Bernard Naoki Hedenborg, cello; Hans Winking, double bass; Richard Hyung-Ki Joo and Fujiko Oshima, piano; Roberto Zarpellon, harmonium)
recorded in the Haydn-Saal Schloß Esterhazy, Eisenstadt, 25-27 May 2004
MDG 603 1313-2 [59:55]

 

This is a most fascinating disc. For the dedicated Brucknerian, for the student of the 1920s in general or the Second Viennese School in particular - indeed for any intelligent (for which read 'open-minded and broad-minded') listener - it promises to be a very interesting and stimulating listening experience. It deserves note as a thoroughly worthwhile venture for the ever-enterprising MDG label.

Bruckner's Seventh, completed - significantly - in the year of Wagner's death, 1883, is in many ways his most satisfying. It is consistent and heartfelt in its inspiration, relatively compact in its structure and organic in its thinking, and lacking all the usual (pre-7th) textual controversies. Its highlight, surely, is the noble Adagio, most especially the meandering chromatic chorale which, with its unstoppable slow momentum, shining brass and ornamental string lines, treads relentlessly to one of the Nineteenth Century's greatest orchestral climaxes - and one of cymbal players' proudest moments!

But this recording is different ...

When Arnold Schönberg (together with Alban Berg and Anton Webern) founded his Verein für musikalische Privatauffürungen in November 1918, his intention was to present music - and not just contemporary music - which he regarded as undervalued, or deserving of particular promotion and attention. It was, as Berg put it in a prospectus, "not a society for composers, but exclusively for the public": in fact the press was expressly excluded, and applause (as well as expressions of displeasure) forbidden. After 118 concerts, the society was disbanded in September 1921 - one month before this version of Bruckner's Seventh was completed, an accident of history which meant that its first performance (by the Thomas Christian Ensemble) had to wait until 19 March 2000.

Remember that, however much Schönberg and his three student-transcribers genuinely valued this music, the sound culture of the 1920s - by now relatively linear, disciplined and monochrome - was very different to the massively colourful, organ-like sonorities favoured by Bruckner. Written as it was for a diminutive ensemble of limited range (in terms of both dynamic and sonority) it was inevitable that this grandest of symphonic essays should re-emerge as an exercise in textural 'dieting' - more objective, but equally revealing; more analytical, but no less involving; more intimate, but almost as dramatic as the original.

Although the arrangement as a whole was jointly engineered by three of Schönberg's then-students, the first and third movements were largely Eisler's work, whereas Stein worked on the Adagio and Rankl the finale. There are no discernible fingerprints which we can attach to any of these. In fact, working as they did in evident haste, they seem all to have adopted a common method of retaining orchestral string parts from the original score without significant alteration, with the clarinet taking the wind solos, the horn the brass, and the piano and harmonium being used where harmonic weight is required, for example in tuttis or wind and brass chords. To a large extent, therefore, these are arrangements of convenience, not great artistry.

What you most lose is the sheer weight and range of orchestral tone colour. Bruckner's string tremolandi are crudely exposed on individual instruments, the great outbursts of brass instruments (in the scherzo, for example) lack impact, and the solemn harmonic voice of the great Adagio is - frankly - belittled by such a diversity of solo lines.

Advantages? Hey, don't rule these out! The intimacy of a small ensemble such as this is a very effective means of highlighting contrapuntal dialogue, and introducing light and shade into Bruckner's massive - sometimes dense - tuttis. So detail emerges afresh as if caught in a spotlight. In the process, one is made more aware of the historical links between the Second Viennese School and its Schubert-Bruckner-Mahler ancestry. 'Chamberised' Bruckner, as here, connects well with the Mahler of the Ninth and the Schönberg of the Chamber Symphony. Listeners with an ear for such musical 'family trees' will find this arrangement especially absorbing and illuminating.

The Thomas Christian Ensemble are splendid salesmen. And the MDG engineers serve them well. Worth investigating!

Peter J Lawson


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