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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (‘Vienna’ version 1891, edited Schaller)
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, 26 May 2019, Max-Littmann-Saal (Großer Saal), Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen, Germany
PROFIL PH19084 [50:30]

It was in 2007 when Gerd Schaller commenced his Bruckner cycle of symphonies with the Philharmonie Festiva on the Profil label, and he has now recorded all Bruckner’s symphonies at least once using selected versions. As part of his major project titled BRUCKNER2024 Schaller aims to perform and record all Bruckner’s symphonies in their most important versions with his Philharmonie Festiva in the years up to the composer’s bicentenary in 2024. For his latest release Schaller’s attention returns to the First Symphony which he recorded back in 2011 using the 1866 original unrevised ‘Linz’ version (edited Carragan) on Profil PH 12022 (c/w Sym’s 2, 3 - review). Schaller has chosen to record the First Symphony using the ‘Vienna’ version of 1891, a contentious reworking by Bruckner which has become far less popular than the ‘Linz’ version. Editions of the ‘Vienna’ version have been prepared by Leopold Nowak, Robert Hass, Juan Cahis, Günter Brosche, Cyrill Hynais but here Schaller is using his own edition.

Taking almost a year and a half to write in Linz, Bruckner completed his First Symphony in 1866. By this time Bruckner, who was still finding his feet as a composer, had come under the spell of Wagner including attending performances of Tannhäuser and more recently Tristan. It was two years before the First symphony’s première, given in May 1868 at Redoutensaal, Linz with the composer conducting what was reported to be an unsatisfactory performance from an orchestra augmented by bandsmen from regiments stationed close by. Not surprisingly the symphony had a mixed reception.

There are four versions of the symphony with the ‘Linz’ and ‘Vienna’ being the best known. Schaller explains that after the Linz première Bruckner subjected the score to ‘minor revisions’ in 1877 and 1884. More comprehensive changes were made between 1889 and 1891, notably reworking the original orchestration in preparation for its ‘second première’ as it is sometimes described. Coming twenty-three years later this co-called ‘second première’ in December 1891 was given in Vienna under Hans Richter with the Vienna Philharmonic at Goldener Saal, Musikverein. This ‘Vienna’ première too received a divided response. Bruckner specialist and musicologist Robert Simpson, a detractor of the ‘Vienna’ score, felt it ‘is rarely an improvement over the original, and often the simplicity and urgency of Bruckner’s inspiration in Linz is ruined by fussy and frequently difficult detail’ and described its revision as ‘disastrous’ yet finding it ‘a document of deep interest’. Another critic of the ‘Vienna’ version biographer Derek Watson felt Bruckner’s revisions served ‘effectively to destroy the charm and natural exuberance of his youthful style’.

In the opening movement marked Allegro right from the opening march theme, Schaller holds together so impressively the testing orchestral writing with its ‘incredible walls of sound’, especially the powerful brass and string figurations. Particularly noticeable is the level of cohesion the players achieve in the glorious Adagio, a movement memorable for its ‘ebbs and flows.’ The beautifully aria-like passage which leads through gallantly to a stormy climax is stunningly played. In the Scherzo I love the way Schaller manages the rhythmic impetus of the writing, especially the challenges of the shifting dynamics. Schaller demonstrates mastery over the belligerently fierce writing of the Finale maintaining the momentum superbly throughout its changing dynamic and tempi.

The venue for this concert, the Max-Littmann-Saal Regentenbau with its cherrywood panelled walls and ceiling, is notable for its excellent acoustic. The sound quality achieved is to the usual high quality from the Bayerischer Rundfunk in conjunction with the Profil label. In accompanying booklets, I prefer a traditional essay format and I’m not usually enamoured with the interview format but this one between music writer Andrea Braun and Gerd Schaller is very informative.

The 1877 ‘Linz’ version of the First Symphony has by far the lions’ share of recordings. However, several conductors have made recordings of the ‘Vienna’ version (1891) notably Claudio Abbado (Accentus), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Michael Gielen (SWR Music), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Atma Classique) and Günter Wand (RCA Red Seal). In my view the main competition to Schaller is from Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in an engaging live recording from 2012 at Lucerne summer festival on Accentus (using the Günter Brosche edition). Although it’s hard to choose between the various merits of these two recordings in my view Schaller communicates greater assurance and his Philharmonie Festiva reveals superior unity.

Bruckner’s First Symphony is a work far too often unfairly dismissed but this live recording on Profil demonstrates to the contrary. This is a quite stunning account from Gerd Schaller who is very much at one with Bruckner’s unique soundworld.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Ralph Moore

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