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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]

Listening to Bruckner’s most “cosmic” symphony transcribed for the King of Instruments is certainly an interesting experience, all the more so because Bruckner never actually heard it performed by an orchestra, only on two pianos, so we are hearing something closer to his only experience of it. St Florian organist Matthias Giesen plays his own tried and tested transcription here; he was also one of the two pianists involved in the 2006 recording of the arrangement for two pianos of the Ninth Symphony which was included as a bonus to René Ballot’s live performance of the same work in the same venue on the same label (review).

There, it was noticeable that the pianos’ inability to sustain long lines, especially at the broad tempi chosen, meant that the performance, compared with the conventional orchestral recordings, could occasionally sound a little short-winded, but no such problem obtains here, as of course the Bruckner Organ has the resources to expand, apply legato and arguably, in addition, access to a greater range of colouristic voices and effects than are available even to the combination of two grand pianos. This is certainly a stately, even leisurely, account, several minutes slower than, for example, the celebrated, conventional, orchestral versions by Karajan and Eichhorn and as slow as Celibidache – if not quite as expansive as Ballot’s (review ~ review), which remains deeply satisfying for some but perhaps for others hors concours.

As a performer, Matthias Giesen evinces the qualities essential to the successful realisation of Bruckner’s music: patience and grip. The mysterious, slow-paced opening loses little in atmosphere compared with the orchestral counterpart and the answering blast reassures the listener that this will be no reduced or small-scale version. The occasional effect, such as the triplets rendered by rapidly pressing the keys, are more surprising than jarring and the “bubbling up” effect produced by judicious selection of the right stop positively enhances the symphony’s unearthly quality, reminiscent of passages in Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor. The Adagio is grand and imposing, building inexorably and sustaining momentum without dragging despite the slow tempo. To my ears, the movement the least amenable by far to transcription is the Scherzo which sounds oddly spare, hesitant and even, on occasion, unwieldy, especially as it is played some three or even four minutes more slowly than most orchestral accounts, presumably simply as a practical consequence of the limitations in the flexibility of the huge organ employed here. However, I particularly like the way in the finale that the reedy stop selected imitates the clarinet in the opening statement of the leaping octave first theme upon which the fugal exposition is based and the chorale sections benefit from the sheer weight, majesty and magnitude of the noise the organ can generate. Hearing the movement played like this in what is essentially a back-formation of the composer’s original intent makes the listener appreciate once more the extent to which Bruckner’s musical imagination was predicated upon the capabilities and repertoire of the organ.

Given the location, the sound is inevitably rather cavernous and resonant with – literally - plenty of audible air around the acoustic, certainly conveying the majesty of the venue and the instrument itself. Mechanical noises are audible but minimal and, if anything, add to the atmosphere. The attractive cover, depicting a luminous bust of Bruckner among nebulae and constellations, happily complements the empyrean nature of this wonderful music.

Ralph Moore

(This review reproduced here by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal)

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