Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (1878/1880 version) [65:43]
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883) [64:52]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Finale completed by William Carragan in 2010 revised version) (1896) [83:41]
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, Ebrach Abbey, Bavaria, Germany, 29 July 2007 (No.4), 29 July 2008 (No.7), 1 August 2010 (No.9)
HÄNSSLER PROFIL PH11028 [4 CDs: 65:43 + 64:52 + 36:54 + 46:47]
The live performance of William Carragan’s completion of the Finale to the Ninth Symphony might for some constitute the principal attraction to this four-disc issue, but the main offering here is three of Bruckner’s most popular symphonies. These are live recordings of performances from three different years at the Ebrach Festival. If the name of the Philharmonie Festiva is unfamiliar to you, be reassured that it comprises soloists from the three main Munich orchestras, with the Munich Bach Soloists at their core. You may thus have no fears regarding its competency to handle Bruckner’s massive sonorities and complex counterpoint. There are no flubs or blips, just immensely elegant and homogeneous playing of extraordinary facility. The brass are especially sonorous but every section covers itself in glory.

The sound, too, is mostly exemplary in its clarity and definition, and only very occasionally slightly soft-edged, this being live and not subject to the highlighting of individual instruments to which audiophiles have become accustomed. The acoustic sounds more like a faithful reproduction of what you would hear in a purpose-built concert hall rather than the nave of an abbey. A couple of discreet coughs apart in the first movement of the Fourth, there is hardly a trace of audience noise and no amplification of extraneous noise. The engineers have succeeded in recreating Bruckner’s putative “cathedral of sound” in an actual church. The reverberation carries on for about five seconds once the music stops but it does not clog the texture during the actual playing. The brass blare brazenly, instrumental lines emerge cleanly without undue prominence and those rich harmonies and arresting dissonances, the result of Bruckner’s increasingly daring experimentation, are beautifully articulated.

Having reacquainted myself with a good few standard recorded versions, I conclude that there is something about the nature of Bruckner’s music which permits far less scope for the imposition of idiosyncratic or even wayward interpretation. The music seems largely to dictate its own momentum. Certainly there are far fewer discrepancies in timings amongst the classic versions than one might encounter in recordings of, say, Mahler. Gerd Schaller’s accounts sit firmly in a recognisable tradition of Bruckner conducting. He eschews excessive rallentandi and agogic distortions of the kind favoured by Jochum but is rarely routine or mundane. Just occasionally I felt I would have appreciated a little more attack and intensity in his delivery. The emphasis here is upon a stately sonorous quality where some rival versions find more tension. In the Ninth, for example, I have yet to find a recording to rival that by Wildner on Naxos for sheer majesty of sound in combination with propulsive momentum. Hard though it is to credit, the Westphalians manage a virtuosity to match orchestras of far starrier provenance. Good as it is, the weakness in Friedemann Layer’s recording with the Mannheim forces, is the occasional sourness of tone from the woodwind and scrappiness from the strings. Layer’s recording of the Ninth is not in direct competition with the Ninth on this set as he opts to use the “Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca” completion of the Finale (begun in 1983, finished in 1991 and corrected again in 2008). Schaller uses Carragan’s version.

Harnoncourt’s recording with the VPO of the 18 minutes of extant, orchestrated music up to the recapitulation of the chorale, provides sufficient evidence for the general listener to hear just how substantial, complete and extensive the supposed Finale “fragments” are and how feasible a completion is. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs proposes that 223 bars are missing from a probable 665 of the Finale planned by Bruckner. Of those 442 are mostly fully orchestrated. Furthermore, there are sketches for those missing 223, leaving only 96 for which we have no music. Carragan, however, argues that more bars are missing than the SPCM collaboration allows for. His version, completed in 1982 and here used in its latest performing edition from 2010, runs to 717 measures. It is the coda which leaves the greatest latitude for invention and it is there where we hear the greatest differences between completions.

I find myself joining the ranks of those convinced that this most transcendent of symphonies is best served by the addition of a Finale at least something like what Bruckner envisaged. The composer himself was clear that a finale was required, hence his suggestion that the “Te Deum”, despite being in the wrong key of C major, could be used as a default ending if he failed to live long enough to complete the symphony. It is equally clear that he intended in the Finale to reference themes not only from the preceding three movements but perhaps from preceding symphonies, too, confirming the Ninth as the summation of his life’s work. If you want this symphony to stop with the Adagio, you have no reason to abandon Wand, Walter, Giulini or Jochum, but they will not do once one has accepted the aptness and desirability of a Finale.

Carragan’s decision to provide more extensive links where Bruckner’s music is missing admits the possibility of hearing more of Carragan himself than Bruckner, whereas the relative brevity and fidelity of the SPCM edition admits fewer possibilities of indulgence. As such, it ends up sounding more consistently echt Brucknerian than some of Carragan’s more exotic elaborations. Conversely, Carragan’s greater inventiveness might be preferable to what some could hear as an over-reliance in the SPCM version upon a preponderance of descending ostinato figures of the kind we hear repeated eight times in the opening. For me, it all hangs together: the effect is of squadrons of golden eagles gradually descending. The succeeding lyrical section, beginning around 15 minutes in, is strongly reminiscent of the Siegfried Idyll; we then segue into echoes of Das Rheingold, with a big, thrilling, brass fanfare at 18:34, a sudden silence at 23:30 and finally a string tremolando crescendo.

Carragan’s apotheosis is a more conventionally linear pealing of great bronze bells but his original use of brass for the coda is very striking. Indeed, his orchestral colouring is in general more brass and woodwind biased and there is a certain amount of doubling which can make the textures seem a little thick. I like Carragan’s insertion of the “catastrophe chord” at 18:00 although some find it melodramatic and presumably either too derivative or anachronistic in its allusion to the screaming, dissonant outburst of despair in the Adagio and Finale of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. The sweep, urgency and conviction of Schaller’s direction make the strongest possible case for Carragan. I have listened repeatedly to both Finales and must ultimately sit on the fence: I like the more chaotic, cumulative glory of Carragan’s more mercurial version but am equally in admiration of the artistic unity and integrity of the SPCM confection.

In concentrating on the Ninth and in particular the novelty of its Finale, it is possible to neglect emphasising the excellence of the performances of the other two symphonies here; they are superb in their own right.

Schaller’s tempi in the first two movements of the Fourth will for some represent the juste milieu between Tennstedt’s broader pacing and Jochum’s nervier, more erratic direction. His shimmering strings and mellow horns generate a marvellous sense of tense expectancy in the introduction to the first movement. The music seems to float in mid-air; once more I am conscious of how both Schaller’s conducting and the acoustic of the recording combine to suggest vast space, although Tennstedt still has the edge when it comes to creating a sense of inexorable progress towards the exuberant climax. The playing is flawless; Schaller’s steady concentration positively hypnotises the listener and we are swept along in wave after wave of refulgent sound. The smoothness of the lower strings in the Andante is a joy, although Tennstedt’s Berlin Philharmonic produces marginally more depth and resonance in their tone. Schaller’s horns in the Scherzo are effulgent, although the acoustic slightly takes the edge off their articulation. Perhaps to counteract that, Schaller could have asked them to imitate Tennstedt’s horns and play more staccato. Tennstedt phrases more lyrically in the quieter passages, but in the Finale it is Schaller who this time most successfully captures the suspense of the opening and builds to the first, splendid tutti peroration after only three minutes.

The Seventh has long been considered Bruckner’s most approachable symphony. It was certainly my route into a first acquaintance with his œuvre. Used to the rather thin sound on Karajan’s 1970/71 recording for EMI – badly in need of re-mastering - I was immediately very struck by the burnished, aureate glow of the cellos’ ascending “dream” figure - actually a quotation from the Credo of Bruckner’s D Minor Mass - and the continued depth of sound throughout. The great chorale for brass and Wagner tubas in the Adagio is the emotional heart of this symphony and it is supremely moving in Schaller’s hands. I very much admire the way he dovetails the lyrical sections with the massive, funereal dignity of those passages echoing the cosmic grief of Siegfrieds Tod und Trauermarsch. The Scherzo is demonically driven, forming the perfect contrast to the preceding Innigkeit. Yet again, I was conscious of little details such as how the acoustic permits the flickering flute embellishments to pierce the warm blanket of orchestral sound. The Finale is majestic and delicate by turns, culminating in a glorious paean to the divine.

Other, individual recordings may legitimately lay claim to being superior to those here. I would not suggest that Schaller’s accounts excel those of the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies by Tennstedt, Karajan and Walter respectively, but if you wanted a box set of three favourite symphonies played to the highest standard in best sound, offering the fruits of some of the latest scholarship regarding a completion of the Ninth, this 4 CD Profil issue is ideal. Listening to such dedicated, sensitive and musicianly performances of these three symphonies has re-ignited my appreciation of Bruckner’s sublime genius.

Ralph Moore

Listening to such dedicated, sensitive and musicianly performances has re-ignited my appreciation of Bruckner’s sublime genius.