Bonus Recording of January 2019: Bruckner: String Quintet

Bruckner: String Quintet (arr. for Large Orchestra), Overture in g
Gerd Schaller, arr., cond.; Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra
Profil PH16036 (CD). 2018. Milan Puklický, prod.; Jan Lzicar, eng. DDD. TT: 57:12
Performance ***
Sonics ****

Bruckner & Mahler: String Quintet (arr. for Chamber Orchestra) & Symphony 10: Adagio
Peter Stangel, arr., cond.; Pocket Philharmonic Orchestra
Edition Taschenphilharmonie/Sony ETP008 (CD). 2017. Sebastian Riederer von Paar, prod., eng., ed. DDD. TT: 59:12
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Bruckner's only mature chamber work, the String Quintet in F, has long sounded to many less like chamber music than like a Bruckner symphony squeezed into far smaller form. It's long, follows Bruckner's version of classical symphonic form, and is as meticulously composed and as contrapuntally intricate as his far larger-scaled symphonies. Like many of those, it has an alternate movement, an Intermezzo. In tenderness and poignancy, the Quintet's warm Adagio is close enough in depth and quality to its counterparts in Bruckner's symphonies 00 through 5 that it now exists in at least 11 arrangements (none by Bruckner) for string orchestra; three of those, the most popular being Hans Stadlmeier's, include the Quintet's three other movements.

These discs contain performances of the first arrangements I know of for ensembles containing woodwinds, brass, and timpani: by Peter Stangel (who retitles it a Chamber Symphony), written for his chamber orchestra, the Munich-based Taschenphilharmonie (Pocket Philharmonic), which has recorded Stangel's chamber versions of Beethoven's symphonies 1–9 and Mahler's Seventh; and by Bruckner specialist Gerd Schaller, scored for full orchestra, and including not only the Intermezzo but the Scherzo it was composed to replace. Over both projects hovers the ghost of Arnold Schoenberg, occasional expander and compressor of other composers' works. Stangel has dedicated his Pocket Philharmonic to performances in the style of Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances, which in 1920s Vienna commissioned and performed chamber versions of symphonic works (eg, Mahler's Symphony 4) that have recently been revived to considerable acclaim. Schaller told me that he was inspired to orchestrate Bruckner's Quintet by Schoenberg's similar treatment of Brahms's Piano Quartet Op.25.

Stangel's condensation from full orchestra to a mere 16 players of the Adagio of Mahler's Symphony 10 is remarkable for its concision, elegance, and intelligence. The resulting leanness, freshness, and astringency of sound and affect—and Stangel's precise, pointed, austere conducting, very much à la George Szell and fully matched by the Pockets' disciplined playing—make his orchestration and this recording important additions to those repertoires, and have made me entirely rethink, or refeel, a work that had always left me cold. The effect is a stripping away of huge swaths of luxurious packing materials—excelsior, velvet, satin—to leave only the music's essentials. That musical core now speaks to my ear all the more strongly, poignantly, and convincingly, and alone is worth the price of admission. Stangel's is now my favorite version and performance of the Adagio.

All of that also describes Stangel's orchestration of Bruckner's Quintet, as he brings the same strengths and values to a work about which I have far fewer reservations. For all its density and seriousness, the Quintet is ebulliently playful. It was composed immediately after Bruckner's completion of his colossally contrapuntal Symphony 5, which itself (I seem alone in thinking) is suffused with barely suppressed slyness and knee-slapping mirth. The Quintet is that spirit released to dance to some very contorting rhythms and syncopations in each meticulously structured movement; in Stangel's version, it is always balletically light on its feet. And Stangel shares with Schaller the distinction of making more musical sense than I have heard elsewhere of the outer movements' problematic final bars, perhaps the most arbitrary and least satisfying of all Bruckner codas.

Schaller's arrangement for large orchestra (as he calls it) is as brilliant as Stangel's, but in different ways. Schaller has recorded all 11 of Bruckner's symphonies, some in multiple versions; by 2024, the composer's bicentennial, he plans to be the first conductor to have recorded all authentic variants of all the symphonies. His decades of study and conducting of Bruckner's music is evident in every bar of this orchestration, and his addition of the Intermezzo after the Adagio not only expands the Quintet's scale but changes its character in surprising ways. The Intermezzo is some of the quirkiest, cheekiest, most fun music ever written by a composer not known for those qualities; inserting it makes the entire work not a vast, five-movement Bruckner symphony, but more an orchestral serenade à la Brahms or Dvorák. Schaller scores for the orchestra Bruckner used in Symphony 5: doubled woodwinds, four horns, trios of trumpets and trombones, bass tuba—but no Wagner tubas, contrabass tuba, harp, cymbals, or triangle. The results embody delightful contradictions: Though the Quintet is now longer, and of course heavier in tone and sheer sonic heft, it is also lighter in mood and feel. This is all the more striking in that every note sounds as if Bruckner might himself have scored it, so fully has Schaller assumed Bruckner's style and voice.

Those who know the Quintet will have great fun with both versions, marveling at how familiar passages for five strings are parceled out among larger forces, and how fully the many liberties taken have been earned. A short book could be written about each, so one example must serve for all. The passage I most looked forward to begins in bar 63 of the Scherzo: the two violas labor in contrary motion, heavily bowing a coarsely woven, mostly descending four bars of eighth notes. In any performance of the Quintet this willful, comic, deliberately lumpen writing stands out; I expected that one or both arrangers would score it for tutti double-stopped orchestral strings digging in hard, much as they do, strikingly, in a development of the second subject of Symphony 4's Finale. Instead, they go different and opposite ways similar only in their cleverness and surprise: Stangel keeps the passage scored for two violas while changing everything around them; Schaller doubles the time values of the violas' notes to match the cello's supporting quarter-notes in the original Quintet, then rescores all as a stately chorale for low brass.

Schaller applies such judicious strength of inspiration throughout: to orchestral balances, voicings, tonal colors, string part writing, brass chorales, pointed solo-trumpet accents, passages for solo flute and clarinet—it's amazing how idiomatically Brucknerian it all sounds.

Which makes it more the pity that this performance is not up to the quality Schaller has long established with the orchestra he founded, the Philharmonie Festiva. This, his first Bruckner recording with a different orchestra, the Prague RSO, lacks the Festiva's suppleness and those recordings' clear, spacious sound; the playing is often stiff and scrappy, as if under-rehearsed, or as if Schaller and the Praguers were still getting used to each other. It also could have benefited from a slower pace that might have missed fewer of the many opportunities Schaller's brilliant arrangement so clearly offers.

The same is true of the pairing, the rarely played Overture in g, which Bruckner wrote as a set exercise at the age of 39, while studying composition (!) with Otto Kitzler. A sort of compendium of stock orchestral-overture gestures in the manner of similar works by Beethoven, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, the Overture is no masterwork—but it can support less tentative, more dramatic readings than this, as Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Saarbrücken RSO amply prove in their recording. But Schaller's orchestration of the Quintet is the main attraction; like Stangel's, it is an important contribution to the Bruckner repertoire that deserves wide performance and recording.

Neither orchestration reveals a 12th Bruckner symphony long hidden in plain hearing, but instead something of perhaps even greater value. As I listened first to the original Quintet, then to Stangel's orchestration, then Schaller's, and as the numbers of players grew and the sound increased, the music seemed to become not more portentous and deep but more distant and light; less profound but more pleasing; less intimate but friendlier. These are not criticisms. It's a wonder that a single composition can be presented as three such different works while never being betrayed.—Richard Lehnert

Long-time listener's picture

A great review! Thanks

mmole's picture

If I want a taste of long form composition by a guy von Bulow called "half genius, half simpleton," I'll listen to the Wu Tang Clan. Bruckner ain't no RZA. Classical culture has done as much damage to our country and the white community as drugs and Trump have. Kids need real heroes to look up to, not Austro-German romantics posing as "artists." Teaching kids that using rich harmonic language with a strong polyphonic character is cool isn't cool. And it gets many of them killed. Look at the violence running rampant in Carnegie Hall.