RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1894 original version, ed. Nowak 1951, finale completed by Gerd Schaller, 2015)
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live July, 2016, Abteikirche, Ebrach, Upper Franconia, Germany.
PROFIL PH16089 [36:54 + 47:43]
I was privileged to be a guest seated in the choir of the imposing 13C Gothic abbey at the premiere of Maestro Gerd Schaller’s completion of the finale on 24 July this year and can attest to the palpable sense of anticipation coursing through the packed assembly as he picked up his baton.
The experience of such a venue and occasion might predispose the listener to giving a more enthusiastic reception to the recording of the event than the performance actually merits, but there is no question that we heard an account to vie with the very best, immeasurably enhanced by an extraordinarily rich and complex arrangement and “elaboration” of the accumulated mass of sketches and sections of score which Bruckner left behind. Even without the finale, this would have been a monumental event; the addition of Schaller’s completion made it one of those musical memories to treasure.
The conductor, his orchestra and indeed the engineers of the Bayerischer Rundfunk have by now long experience of how best to exploit the abbey’s cavernous acoustic to best effect without permitting the music to become obscured by a wash of sound; certainly this recording reflects my own experience of the concert and the balance between instrumental groups is ideal, although I would imagine that those seated further back might have heard a more diffuse sound.
From the very opening few seconds we are made aware of Schaller’s wonderful control of dynamics, the creeping string tremolando generating nerve-tingling tension until we ease seamlessly and gracefully into the broad melody of the second subject. This is a grand, opulent interpretation, in keeping with the dignity of the surroundings; Schaller’s grasp on the pacing and structure of the piece and the smoothness of his transitions are exemplary. The music casts its spell over the audience; the proof of that is evident in that they remained rapt and still throughout the 85 minutes of this recording.
Especially magnificent are the horns and indeed the brass in general; the dominance of their message is redolent of matters eschatological and worthy of a masterwork symphony dedicated, in Bruckner’s own words, “to the Majesty of all majesties.” There is an overwhelming sense of an inexorable progress towards a great, final goal; Schaller requires no fussy or exaggerated effects but simply gauges the accelerandi judiciously at key points. The flutes and woodwind are particularly expressive in the Gesangsperiode of the first movement without ever courting schmaltz.
The Scherzo is at first delicate then devilish, the horns braying savagely, the pregnant pause before the tripping Trio artfully judged as the mood mutates into skipping insouciance before the reversion to fury.
The playing of the Adagio is beautifully precise and unified, no vulgar slipping or sliding, but building and building to a shattering climax while the violas flutter in the background like a fading pulse; this is the most refined, yet powerful and poetic of readings. The soul soars towards apotheosis as the wide-leaping strings and lonely flute provide a threnody to the fragility of humanity and its hope for salvation; the conclusion is exquisitely poised.
Even to attempt the provision of a fourth movement to this symphony is still considered superfluous in some quarters but we are surely now, after so many completions and performances, more accepting of the validity of the enterprise. Gerd Schaller certainly makes musical sense of the remnants of Bruckner’s score and the memory of my encounter with the final ten minutes of this performance remains for me one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life. A great deal of that excitement is successfully transmitted via this recording. The emphatic contribution of the brass and the preponderance of aggressive rhythms lend a very military complexion to the movement, its repeated, jagged, falling theme set against a trumpet ostinato to create a restless, highly charged atmosphere, as if a marauding army were converging on a heavenly citadel. The sheer noise of the chorale, incorporating preceding themes, is overpowering; hence the moment of silence – another of those vital Brucknerian tropes – at 20’30”, before the mighty conclusion, becomes all the more effective.
For all my fervent advocacy of it, I do not necessarily prefer this completion to other options and indeed you may hear Gerd Schaller make a wonderful job of the final 2010 Carragan completion in his previous Profil recording (review), just as Johannes Wildner delivers a superb account of the Samale-Philips-Cohrs-Mazzuca realisation on the Naxos label. However, the power, sincerity and conviction of Schaller’s completion and the virtuosity of this performance as a whole lead me to prize this recording as an accurate record of a truly spiritual experience.
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