Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1890)
Symphony no.9 in D minor (in four movements) arranged for two pianos - transcr. Grunsky (I-III) and Carragan (IV)
Till Alexander Körber; Reinhold Puri-Jobi (2 pianos, 4 hands)
rec. public concert, 20 August 2015, Sala Terrena, Stift St. Florian, Austria.

I have always been interested in transcriptions - possibly because I admire the incredible skill it takes to recreate a piece originally intended for one instrument onto another.  As an amateur pianist, obviously piano transcriptions are my favourite.  I was aware of the solo piano transcriptions of Bruckner's symphonies by the little known August Stradal (1860-1930). Some of Stradal's excellent Liszt symphonic poem transcriptions are available on Toccata (vol. 1; vol. 2) and I eagerly await the remaining volumes. With that in the background I had assumed that someone must have transcribed the Bruckner symphonies for two pianos.  I was correct - Gustav Mahler and Rudolf Krzyzanowski transcribed Bruckner's Third (1877 version) for two pianos. Much less well known are the two piano transcriptions by Karl Grunsky (1871-1943).  This recording of his work on Bruckner's Ninth is even more interesting because it includes the finale - as realised by Nicole Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John Phillips & Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs in 1992. This arrangement of the finale was written especially for this performance at the Brucknertage 2015.

While writing this review I listened to the orchestral versions I possess: Karajan’s three movement version on DG Galleria from 1966 and Wildner’s complete Naxos recording. Further researching the piece, I discovered that I had little idea how much of the original finale actually exists in Bruckner’s hand. It is this on which Carragan's 'completion' relies heavily so it is probably the closest we will get to knowing what the composer intended. This is the first recording of his completion of this epic work for these forces although an earlier recording on Gramola couples Grunsky’s transcription of the first three movements with a recording of the orchestral version, conducted by Rémy Ballot.

The cover-notes are interesting and contain details about the completion and its genesis as well as comparing it with other realisations of incomplete works such as Mozart’s Requiem and Mahler’s Tenth. Also mentioned in the notes is the fact that there will always be a noticeable difference in timbre between recordings of a transcription of an orchestral work for two pianos such that it is necessary to introduce as many colours as possible into the playing. There is also an interesting section which discusses the recording venue and the history behind it.

I can say here that listening to this disc, the transcription works very well indeed. The sinister tremolandos — of which Bruckner was so fond — at the start of the first movement really do sound mysterious, as indicated by the tempo description which heads the movement. The sinuous theme which winds around itself at about 1:30 sounds really beguiling. Massive outbursts, such as that found around 14:30, which in the original version include brass and woodwind are here rendered so well by twenty fingers such that it makes you forget that this work was originally for full orchestra.

The Scherzo is initially taken very slightly more slowly than in the orchestral versions which I have in my collection. However, the whole movement is in proportion and holds together well. The bouncy introduction which builds to a sinister indeed demonic theme at 25:16 is extremely well integrated. The slower “ländler” section in the middle of the movement is interesting and works very well on the piano. When the sinister theme returns toward the end of the movement, there is some detail (at 30:12) which I had never been able to pick out before. There are no missing details here and the fact that it is two pianos rather than an orchestra does help with the clarity of the textures.

The massive third movement Adagio is generally very slow and majestic, as it should be. There is some lovely playing here and the detail due to the superb recording and the two piano writing shows up wonderfully. There are some very odd sounding harmonies around 47:48 which are marvellous and easier to pick out in this arrangement. Of special note is the conclusion of this movement – a good description would be profoundly peaceful after some of the earlier, more agitated episodes, around 50:00.

The finale is a fitting conclusion to the work, well in keeping with the remainder of the piece. I especially like the feeling of building tension in the first 1–2 minutes of the piece which eventually resolves into something more relaxed at 60:30. The playing around 63:00 is wonderful and the music is very uplifting before changing into something more disturbing. Again, in this movement, it is testimony to the fantastic job of the transcriber that the piece does not sound as if it was originally written for different forces. There are some interesting hints at Beethoven’s Ninth symphony at around 70:00 – another thing I’d never noted before. The work goes through a series of episodes, some agitated, others more calming as it gradually winds up to a heroic conclusion in D major which is magnificent on this recording.

The other important and interesting thing about this recording is the fact that it is on a Blu-Ray DVD and is recorded in very high definition. Even with our imperfect set up — without surround sound — the sound quality is remarkable. You can pick the sound quality on the opening menu. The choices are 4.0 DTS HD MA 24/192khz and 2.0 DTS HD MA 24/192khz. The menu also allows you to pick which movement you can play.

The audience were very quiet throughout – I noticed only one small cough in the whole performance. They are also suitably appreciative at the end.
I do have some very, very minor quibbles none of which detract from the quality of the performance or the sound. Firstly, I was somewhat surprised not to have a moving video of the performance. All we get are two photographs of the pianists before and after the performance. These stay visible throughout as they are on the menu screen. Secondly, presumably due to the up-scaling of our Blu-ray player, there is a slight ghosting effect around the text on the menu page. Neither of these things will spoil your listening though. Thirdly, unfortunately, there is no indication of how long each movement is given anywhere on the notes. This is something I always look out for but others may not find this an issue. These details are set out below.

To sum up then: this is an absolutely splendid recording of a famous work, albeit in an unfamiliar arrangement. I urge you to get a copy, put it on loud and pin back your ears – you are in for a treat.

Jonathan Welsh

Movement timings
I. Feierlich, misterioso [0 – 24:28]
II. Scherzo. Bewegt, lebhaft; Trio. Schnell [24:36 – 35:40]
III. Adagio. Langsam, feierlich [35:46 – 58:04]
IV. Finale [58:06 – 80:31]