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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, WAB 105 (transcr. organ by Matthias Giesen)
Matthias Giesen (organ)
rec. live, 14-17 October 2018, Bruckner Tage Festival, St. Florian, Stiftsbasilika, St. Florian, Austria
GRAMOLA 99169 [84:40]

I’m personally rather fond of transcriptions and also Bruckner’s symphonies so this sounded like the perfect disc for me to review. Bruckner’s orchestral works have often been described as sounding as if they were conceived for organ so here the organist (and also pianist) Matthias Giesen has cleverly arranged the 5th symphony for the “King of instruments”. Bearing in mind the incredibly complex nature of the various editions of Bruckner’s symphonies, it’s good to report that this one is probably the one which underwent the least editing so it is quite easy to pin down the composition date – which is what is given in the notes. The original manuscript is also on IMSLP for all to see and is clearly dated too.

Anyway, the first movement is massively long and starts with a slow introductory section which leads into the main part of the movement, marked ‘Allegro’. The opening plodding introduction is especially evocative, hinting at the massive outbursts of music which occur later. I do like the way he phrases the more cheerful music at about 7’10’’ – although there are still hints of darkness in the bass. The mysterious aspects of the work do come across very well, for example around 10 minutes in there is a very strange passage with a long held chord in the bass which leads back to a recapitulation of the opening theme from the ‘Allegro’ before the music moves off into different territory. The music here gives a different solution to that in the orchestral version but generates the same overall effect. Overall in this movement, there are many changes of tempo and mood, all of which work very well for solo organ without affecting the overall feeling of the work. Perhaps the parts that work best are the more climatic, for example a very loud outburst at 15’20’’ which really makes you sit up and pay attention. As the movement draws to a close, there is a theme which repeats in the bass which gradually builds to a massive chordal section that has occurred elsewhere in the piece. This is clearer than generally heard in orchestral performances and serves to underpin the development of the themes as this movement heads towards its conclusion. This passage serves as a very effective lead in to the last triumphant fanfare like moments of this huge movement.

The second movement of the symphony is another enormous block of music, nearly as long as the first movement. The opening is typical Bruckner with pizzicato introduction leading into a typical Brucknerian structured ‘Adagio’. After a mysterious introduction, the main theme is rather lovely and ambles along very nicely – the overall mood here is cheerful despite the generally mournful key of D minor. This minor key music actually doesn’t last long and a nice chordal section begins about two and a half minutes in which is clearly in a major key (I don’t have absolute pitch so cannot determine exactly what key it’s in). This part also contains some lovely music and wonderful mixing of registers between the pedals and the manuals giving a split level effect which is easily relatable to the corresponding passages in the orchestral version. This major key episode lasts several moments, slowly becoming more agitated and then suddenly and unexpectedly very quiet at 6 minutes before the initial tune reappears. This opening tune grows restless as it continues, developing into another different theme which contains some particularly lovely music about 10 minutes in. There is a louder more confident passage after this which serves as a connection to a fugal sounding passage that ultimately leads back to the opening theme which rounds off this movement. The last three minutes contain some magnificent music making, some amazingly varied music (from strident to peaceful in mood) and some gorgeous playing. This movement is a superb creation in any version, I’ve found this to be one of those pieces where you can sit back with headphones on and lose yourself in the music with time seeming to stretch out as you listen.

I rather like the rustic sounds of the Scherzo movement and here in this arrangement, they transfer extremely well to the organ. The evolution of Bruckner’s style can easily be traced here, some of the base notes sound like a precursor to what is found in the 6th and especially the 7th symphonies - I think the organ makes this ever more prevalent. The slower, “lšndler” like sections work especially well and sound almost charming - however these soon dissolve into something far more rapid, powerful and angry. A short lyrical section (from 7’01’’ to 9’25’’) contains much that is beautiful and is very nicely phrased and played. After more reiterations of the opening theme and another short lyrical section (starting at 12’30’’ but frequently interrupted by grumbling hints of the opening theme), the return of the galumphing opening heralds the fact that we are nearing the end of this movement. I really like the way the tension builds as the work progresses and the outbursts in this movement are almost as shocking as heard in the orchestral version. According to the notes, this is one of the most complex of Bruckner’s scherzi and also one of the hardest to bring off in transcription but there is no sense of that here in this performance, at least to my ears.

The final movement of the symphony is the longest of the four and is a combination of sonata form and a massive fugue. There is no point in repeating the level of detail about the construction of this part of the work from the cover notes but sufficed to say, it is very complex in structure. The start of the finale is similar in tone to the opening of the first movement however the music develops in an entirely different direction as it progresses. This again shows the progression in style, more typical of later Bruckner – there are hints of the 7th and 8th symphonies here but these are less fully worked out than in those works. Here, as elsewhere, you will also notice there is quite a lot of silence in this piece between the contrasting sections and this is where you can hear the cavernous acoustic in which the piece was recorded. It’s really rather marvellous to hear the echo hanging on! As with the previous movements, there are plenty of quieter moments and these are particularly effective here but, with this being Bruckner, they don’t last long and the huge loud statements of themes really jump out at you. As I said earlier, there is quite a lot of fugal writing in this movement and as so much fugal music has been written down the ages for organ, perhaps unsurprisingly, these parts work magnificently well for this portion of the work. The fun bouncy music at about 14’20’’ works especially well but there is a complete change of mood in much of the closing few moments of the work. The powerful, epic sounding writing for full orchestra in the last 3 minutes of the work translate splendidly to organ and here this transcription really comes into its own. This ending is utterly overwhelming – just as much as it is in the orchestral version. It sounds especially good with earphones on.

This is one of those recordings where it is best to sit back and listen to the marvellous music making happening here and mentally draw parallels between the orchestral version and this organ version. This symphony also benefits from repeated listening (in any version) as the structure becomes more comprehensible the better you know it. The booklet notes are interesting and detail the work, the history behind it and some notes on the actual difficulties of playing the piece on an organ. To a non-organist these are very interesting and show the mechanics behind the notes. Considering there are only 10 fingers and 2 feet involved in producing the music here, rather than innumerable strings, winds, brass instruments etc., the overall effect and shape of the work is not vastly different to the orchestral version. Often with transcriptions, the idea of the work and not the specific instrumentation is what the transcriber is trying to achieve for different forces and here Mr. Giesen has achieved a remarkable reimagining of the 5th Symphony. I would really like to hear him playing an organ transcription of my favourite of Bruckner’s 11 symphonies, the 7th. Full marks to the transcriber and to Gramola for this remarkable recording.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Ralph Moore



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