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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
String Quintet in F major, WAB 112 (arr. for large orchestra by Gerd Schaller) [45:49]
Overture in G minor, WAB 98 (1863 version) [11:09]
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gerd Schaller
rec. 2018, Prague Radio Hall
PROFIL PH16036 [57:12]

Bruckner wrote the original String Quintet at the request of violinist Josef Hellmesberger for his ensemble, so he never intended it to be a small-scale symphony. However, the idea soon arose that it was some kind of symphony manqué or at least lent itself to a larger scale realisation, and this new orchestration by Gerd Schaller is by no means the first: the Adagio by Fritz Oeser has long been used as a stand-alone concert item for chamber orchestra in at least four recordings I could find, and an arrangement of the complete quintet for string orchestra by Hans Stadlmair, issued on the Bayer label and played by the Württembergischer Kammerorchester Heilbronn conducted by Ruben Gazarian, was very well received by “Gramophone”. There is also a newer arrangement by Michael Erxleben, one of the concertmasters of the Berlin chamber orchestra, on the Cugate Classics label, which I reviewed as a Recording of the Month here in December 2016.

This recording was made in Prague immediately after the live performance, played and conducted by the same artists at the Regentenbau in Bad Kissingen last May, which I attended and thoroughly enjoyed. It was the central item sandwiched between the overture from Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Maestro Schaller has said that his arrangement was designed for a "classical" orchestra, with the aims of keeping the character of chamber music but also demonstrating the symphonic aspects of Bruckner's largest chamber music work. He began by orchestrating the Adagio and decided to include the Intermezzo – an alternative to the first Scherzo which was declared to be too difficult - as was often done in older performances. His instrumentation comprises two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons; four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.

In the previous review referred to above, I wrote, “I do not think the exercise of transcribing the String Quintet for a string band is superfluous when the results are so satisfying and so clearly accommodate Bruckner's soaring melodies and large-scale inclinations.” I stand by that, although both the thematic material and the inclusion of a fifth movement conspire to make the work seem more like an orchestral suite, somewhat smaller in scale than a symphonic work – and aptly so. It is equally true that Bruckner’s original sounds marvellous as it stands, written for a string quintet, but the orchestrations provide much pleasure as there is undeniably some element in the music which suggests that Bruckner was striving for a grander vista such as is afforded by a full orchestra.

In his review of the live performance, fellow Brucknerian Ken Ward was complimentary but suggested that. “[t]he Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra didn’t always sound as though they had lived with the music long enough… Just a few passages where the work seemed unnecessarily fragmented, the line being lost, suggested that there was room for improvement in what was nevertheless a very attractive performance.”

The benefit of having given a live performance and further rehearsal time is apparent from this studio recording: despite the strange, quirky turns the music takes, there is a greater sense of flow and unity than I recall from the live performance and the brief, intermittent handing over of the leading voices from the strings to the woodwinds is smoothly accomplished.

Schaller eases gently into the rocking, three-quarter-time opening but soon provides tension in the execution of the more agitated second subject, building skilfully to a grand, but not bombastic, peroration. Indeed, only rarely do I feel that the re-scoring aspires to true symphonic scale; for the most part the proportions are more reminiscent of, say, Grieg’s Holberg Suite or Tchaikovsky’s or Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings; this is especially apparent in the Scherzo, which, despite having the tropes readily recognisable as typically Brucknerian, retains a skipping lightness very unlike the demonic intensity of the symphonic Scherzos. This restrained, classical elegance, in combination with the chromaticism and forward-looking invention of Bruckner’s melodic motifs, vindicates Maestro Schaller’s observation in his note that the “music has the effect of sounding both archaic and modern at one and the same time.”; the effect, like the orchestration itself, is “Classical-Romantic”.

The beautiful Adagio is lush but never heavy and completely without the numinous quality of its great Symphonic counterparts; it is rather bucolic and reposeful in the manner of Mahler’s paeans to Nature, the transparency of the orchestration complementing and reinforcing its tranquillity.

The interpolated Intermezzo is a clomping peasants’ dance which acts as a short, amiable prelude to the more sophisticated and mercurial finale, whose fugue recalls those of the symphonies but obviously without the weighty, brass chorales. Again, the main theme is redolent of a kind of Alpine celebration; all is radiant and celebratory without heaviness.

The contrast with the heroic aspirations of the Overture is marked. One of Bruckner’s first; large orchestral works, it has a kind of energy and bustle interspersed with pastoral interludes which are reminiscent of Schumann. It is played ebulliently, moving inexorably toward a triumphant G major conclusion. One small nitpick: the CD’s documentation misspells the English as “Ouverture”.

Of particular note throughout is the sonority of the Prague horns but the playing in general is of the highest quality, with that special Czech sound combining warmth with a touch of astringency.

This is a thoroughly successful and absorbing recording which makes a convincing case for Gerd Schaller’s skilful orchestration of a splendid work.

Ralph Moore



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