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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
F. Charles Adler Conducts Bruckner -
The SPA and Unicorn recordings (1952-1956)
(including a broadcast performance of Symphony No. 6)
Patricia Brinton (soprano); Sonja Dracksler (alto); William Balankenship (tenor); Frederick Gutrie (bass)
Vienna Chorus; Vienna Symphony Orchestra/F. Charles Adler
rec. 1952-1956, live, 17 February 1952, venue details not given (Symphony No. 6)
Contents listed below
MUSIC AND ARTS CD-1283 [5 CDs: 292:56]

My enthusiasm for the recordings of the London-born conductor F. Charles Adler (1889-1959) was sparked some years ago by two Tahra releases and a 3-CD Conifer set. They feature the music of Bruckner and Mahler, the two composers his name became most closely associated with.

Growing up, the young Charles was pulled in two directions. His father was a banker and wanted his son to join the business, whilst his mother, once having studied with Liszt, awakened in him an interest and passion for music. There are no prizes for guessing the winner in this tug of war. In 1906, Adler graduated from the Munich Royal Academy and found himself gravitating towards the inspirational Gustav Mahler. In 1910 he helped prepare the chorus for the Munich premiere of the composer’s Eighth Symphony. A conducting career beckoned, briefly interrupted by World War I. When it resumed, he began touring Europe and the USA, where he emigrated in 1933 following the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Already, by this time, he was a noted interpreter of Bruckner, having conducted several complete symphony cycles.

In the States, Adler struggled to make a living due to the flood of other expatriate conductors. So, in 1951, together with the businessman Norman Fox, he founded the SPA label: Society of Participating Artists. With a leaning towards modern composers, the label’s aim was to issue music not already on record. It had Adler as artistic director. In 1952, he established a base in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, where he could record orchestral music at a much lower cost than in America. Vox, Vanguard, The Bach Guild and The Haydn Society were similarly drawn there for financial reasons. The recording venues used were the Konzerthaus and the Musikverein.

By 1954, SPA had hit hard times, due to lack of organization and funds and its New York distributor, Tempo, went bankrupt. The label's final recording was the Bruckner Mass featured here. In 1955, Adler began recording for the Boston-based company Unicorn and Composers Recordings Incorporated (CRI). The Bruckner First Symphony we have here emanates from the Unicorn stable. Not long after, the conductor developed cancer, and died in Vienna in 1959.

The live broadcast of the Sixth Symphony dates from 17 February 1952 and has been released previously on a 2-disc Tahra set (TAH 239/40). Adler uses the 1899 Doblinger Edition, edited by Cyril Hynais. We are told that this performance is only one of two available on CD to use this version. This is the only historical one but apparently there's modern digital version conducted by Ira Levin. Other conductors have tended to opt for the Haas or Nowak editions. The Adler performance is impressive and powerful, with the outer movements having great nobility and grandeur. However, for me, it is the heartfelt Adagio which marks this reading with distinction. This must be one of the most lyrical slow movements ever penned, with Adler inspiring his forces truly to reveal the music’s poetry. Comparing what we have here with the Tahra release of 1998, I found Music and Arts offer a slight improvement, with the sound a little brighter and having more spatial depth.

For the Symphony No. 9 the conductor uses the 1903 Doblinger Edition, edited by Ferdinand Löwe. Despite the aging sound, I find Adler’s is a probing approach that favours broad tempi in the outer movements. The granite-like opening of the first movement contrasts strikingly with the more lyrical music that follows. The Scherzo is comfortably paced. In the Finale, Adler paints a breathtaking vista, building to a grandiose climax and ending in peace and serenity.

A live performance of the Third Symphony has been released by Music and Arts (CD-1265) dated 8 April 1953, predating this studio recording by a few days. I haven’t had the opportunity to hear it. In the studio performance, Adler adopts broader tempi, adding an extra two minutes onto the timing of the live performance. I find this studio recording strongly argued and there can be no doubting its dramatic intensity and expressive lyricism. The conductor seems to be fully inside the music. The eloquent Adagio is beautifully realized, and the Scherzo is punchy and rhythmically buoyant. Sound quality is more than acceptable. The 1890 version, first published by Theodor Rättig is used.

The First Symphony was recorded for Unicorn in 1955, using the Vienna version, 1890, published 1893 by Doblinger. This is the only recording where the master tape has survived and has been used. It is in fine sound, with orchestral detail more readily discernible. It is a deeply committed performance, with ‘fire and conviction’, as Mark W. Kluge aptly comments in his liner-notes. The Symphony is coupled with a penetrating account of the Overture in G minor, a work not published until 1921.

Unlike the two later Masses, the first in D minor hasn’t had as many advocates in the studio. Adler’s was the first recording, which he made for his SPA label in 1954 and issued the following year. He uses the Gross first edition in which the "Miserere nobis" from the Gloria is sung by the bass soloist instead of by the choir. It’s a well-rehearsed performance in satisfactory sound. I’ve no qualms about the soloists who, whilst not exceptional, are serviceable.

Mark W. Kluge’s excellent, scholarly accompanying notes (in English only) provide a biographical portrait of the conductor. They also chart the short-lived history of SPA records and the circumstances surrounding the making of these recordings. Kluge also discusses each work in detail, and the choice of editions used. Credit and thanks must also be given to A. Z. Snyder for his admirable audio restorations, and the inclusion of some technical notes outlining the problems encountered in the re-mastering process. It has been a 15-year labour of love.

This is one of the most exciting releases I have reviewed this year, and surely qualifies as one of my monthly choices. Not only is it a valuable addition to the composer’s discography, but an essential acquisition for any comprehensive Bruckner collection.

Stephen Greenbank

Contents list
CD 1
Mass No. 1 in D minor (Pub. 1892 by Johann Gross) [50:48]
CD 2
Overture in G minor (Orel/Wöss edition, pub. 1921) [13:18]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Vienna version, 1890; pub. 1893 by Doblinger) [50:00]
CD 3
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1889 version; pub. 1890 by Rättig) [54:11]
CD 4
Symphony No. 6 in A major (Hynais edition, 1899) [58:45]
CD 5
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Löwe edition, 1903) [65:54]


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