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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 0 in D minor (1869) [45.48]
Helgoland (1893) [13.49]
Psalm 150 (1892) [8.45]
Ruth Welting (soprano)
Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, March 1979

Anton Bruckner is not the only composer who managed to get himself in a muddle over the numbering of his symphonies. Dvořák’s four immature symphonies caused such confusion that a wholesale re-numbering was required in the 1950s. Vaughan Williams never gave any numbers to his symphonies until practically the end of his life when he suddenly published a Symphony No. 8 necessitating a wholesale retrospective renumbering. Many other composers have, either forgetfully or deliberately, failed to provide numbers for student or early works in the form. Bruckner however appears to have been the first actually to designate one of his early symphonies as “Symphony No. 0” although confusingly enough there is a second ‘study symphony’ to which posthumous biographers have sometimes given the epithet “Symphony No. 00” (link). Various critics have over the years posthumously assigned the “No. 0” tag to other works – such as Elgar’s First Organ Sonata as orchestrated by Gordon Jacob, or Bax’s Symphony in F as edited by Martin Yates – but the only other composer I know who has consciously adopted the term is Schnittke.

In fact Bruckner’s Nullte was at any rate partially written after his numbered Symphony No. 1 so it seems odd that some conductors who have recorded complete cycles of his symphonies, such as Karajan and Jochum, deliberately omitted the work from their surveys. I think that the first conductor to include “No. 0” in a cycle was Bernard Haitink, but since then conductors such as Chailly, Barenboim and Solti have added it to their sets as a matter of course. Quite rightly, too; it is a very good work indeed even if its purposeful striding opening is perhaps more reminiscent of Schubert than mature Bruckner. The influence of Beethoven is also palpable throughout. In the first movement Barenboim, adopting a very flexible interpretation of the tempo indication Allegro, brings out the many anticipations of Bruckner’s later style and the climax of the development section is really thrilling. He makes much more of the music than the more classically minded Haitink did — speaking from memory of a recording which I no longer possess. I currently own the Chailly, which I find superb with its modern digital recording; but Barenboim rivals him at every turn. He cannot do much with the rather under-powered Adagio, but when in the third movement Bruckner produces one of his pounding scherzos we are in the realm of the mature composer, and the results are utterly convincing. After that the finale is more conventional in style although we are provided with some powerful climaxes, not least in the stentorian delivery of the opening theme.

The early symphony is not full CD length, and some conductors such as Chailly have coupled it with Bruckner’s early Overture. Here we are given two choral works from the opposite end of the composer’s career. Indeed Helgoland was Bruckner’s final work, written contemporaneously with his unfinished Ninth Symphony. And Helgoland is a very great piece indeed, shamefully neglected presumably because it demands a massive male choir to do it real justice. I think it was first recorded by Wyn Morris on LP in the 1970s, where a roaring and exciting orchestral performance tended to overwhelm a thin-voiced group of male singers; some three years ago I reviewed for this site a similarly rather small-scale recording on Naxos by the Lund Student Singers which was one of the less effective tracks on an otherwise highly interesting CD. The opening, as I observed then, reminds the listener of the Te Deum with its plunging string lines and stentorian brass; and I commented then on Barenboim’s two recordings of the work, much preferring this Chicago version to his later and somewhat rushed delivery in Berlin where he shaved nearly two minutes off the duration of the work. Helgoland needs room to expand with its heroic lines, and it receives it here. The closing pages, with their echoes of the Eighth Symphony, are absolutely stunning.

The setting of Psalm 150 written the year before is somewhat better known, although even so there are only three alterative recordings listed currently on Archiv - with various couplings. It was included in Eugen Jochum’s survey of Bruckner choral music, and also in Matthew Best’s more modern and better recorded cycle on Hyperion. At the end of last year there came a new version from Helmut Rilling on Hänssler Classic, which I have not heard. The Hyperion issue has the best soloist in the shape of Juliet Booth, although Ruth Welting is also excellent here in her brief contribution. The chorus trained by the redoubtable Margaret Hills are firm and strong both here and in the male voice work where there is some extremely high writing for the tenors, confidently delivered.

So far as Helgoland is concerned, Barenboim is the only conductor currently listed on Archiv with his two current recordings - apart from the Lund performance on Naxos mentioned above. For reasons explained, I find this the best representation of the work on disc. The performance is only available on a single disc in this DG Galleria mid-price version, and we should be grateful to Presto for restoring it to circulation although the original DG issue is still listed as extant on Archiv. As always with these Presto re-masterings, the booklet material is identical with the Galleria issue. This includes the complete texts of the vocal works, together with translations into English, French and Italian; Naxos only provided the text of Helgoland online. The English booklet notes (and their Italian and Spanish translations) are by no less a Brucknerian authority than Robert Simpson; but the cover is unfortunately typical of the ugly designs which DG habitually provided for their Galleria series of reissues.

Since Helgoland is a major piece which is unjustifiably neglected, this disc is self-recommending in its own right. It also enshrines excellent performances of the Nullte and Psalm 150.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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