Recording of November 2011: Bruckner Symphonies 4, 7, 9

1111rotm.jpgBruckner Symphonies 4, 7, 9
(Finale of 9 completed by Carragan, ed. 2010)
Gerd Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva
Profil PH11028 (4 CDs). 2008/2009/2011. Ememkut Zaotschnyj (4, 7), Lutz Wildner (9), prods.; Sandro Binetti (4, 7), Herbert Fr ühbauer (9), engs. DDD. TTs: 65:43 (4), 64:52 (7), 83:41 (9)
Performance *****
Sonics ***** (4, 7), ****½ (9)

These performances were recorded at the Ebrach Festival, held annually in the small town of Ebrach, Germany (an hour's drive north from Nuremberg or west from Bayreuth), in the former Abbey Church of Ebrach, which comprised a Cistercian monastery (now a prison) and a vast gothic cathedral built in the 13th century which now serves as the parish church. Many hear the phrases "festival orchestra" and "live recording" and expect the worst: flawed documents of underrehearsed performances by hastily convened pickup orchestras in venues not designed for good sound, and plagued by coughs, sneezes, scraped chair legs, the inadvertent rustlings of hundreds of attendees, and a level of applause that might not conform to the response of the listener at home. Recording in a cathedral compounds these problems: The hard stone surfaces seem to magnify the sound of each dropped program, each cleared throat. Nor is all music suited to, or every conductor adept at accommodating, the long reverberations of such spaces, in which the sound seems to lift into the air to hover cloudlike, even as the orchestra continues below. The nave of the Abteikirche Ebrach is 286 feet long; a sound made in it takes, by my clock, nearly six seconds to die away —in orchestral music, an eternity.

Anton Bruckner, a devout Catholic, was comfortable with eternities. He spent half his life in cathedrals, as congregant, music director, and organist, and it has long been a truism of commentary on his symphonies that they are suffused not only with the slow pace and pauses required to make music in such venues, but also with the terraced dynamics of organ music. One can easily make too much of this —Bruckner's writing for the various sections of the orchestra is far more subtle and intricately contrapuntal than could be managed by any organist with only two hands and two feet —but there is some truth to it.

Conductor Gerd Schaller seems as comfortable with the spiritual eternities implied in Bruckner's music as with the briefer aural forevers of a cathedral acoustic. Though he has had a long career in Europe, where he began in opera, Schaller is almost unknown here; I have not heard him conduct anything else in any other hall, and it is difficult to know how much of his interpretation was determined by the Ebrach sanctuary. Regardless, these are not only the finest recordings I have heard of a full orchestra in a cathedral, but perhaps the finest recordings I have heard of a full orchestra in any venue. Cathedral recordings are often too "wet," the sound devolving into impenetrable mud drowned in mounting layers of reverberation. Here the opposite happens: The sound of the hall itself is palpable as a vast body of clear water, through which the music rises and falls like beams of sunlight —or like well-formed thoughts arcing through the calm of a stilled mind and a steady heart, Euclidian geometries of sound endlessly ramifying like a lesson in perspective or the architecture of Palladio. In such a hall, the many long rests and pauses Bruckner wrote into his scores, no matter how generously observed, are never entirely devoid of the music as it slowly fades, seeming to ever halve the time between it and a silence it never quite reaches before, at the last instant, the orchestra resumes. Such limpid transparency leaves the orchestral players entirely exposed —every part can be heard, but with no lack of heft. In short, I have not heard better sound from CD. In fact, halfway through Symphony 4, I double-checked discs and packaging and my Integra DTR-40.1's display to make sure I wasn't listening to the greatly expanded top end and harmonics audible from an SACD's high-resolution tracks. I wasn't.

Such clarity of sound and of musical thought results in interpretations that seem as much products of the secular Enlightenment as of the more spiritual variety, and bring to the fore Bruckner the Classicist, heir to the legacy of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert (as Bruckner considered himself to be), rather than the late-Romantic acolyte of Wagner he is more commonly taken for. But those are halves of a uniquely complex whole, and Schaller honors both: these performances embody even more Classical poise than do the elegant recordings of Georg Tintner, while lacking none of the weight or deep feeling of heavier, slower, more Romantic readings such as Sergiu Celibidache's. Schaller mostly eschews the many unscored ritardandi that have crept into standard interpretations of these works over the years, and this emphasizes his basically Classical style while making his few indulgences in this regard all the more expressive.

Schaller is immensely aided by the playing of the Philharmonie Festiva, which comprises musicians from the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian RSO, and the Bavarian State Opera. Their playing is so virtually perfect that the expectation of a flubbed note or a ragged entrance creates a mounting tension of disbelief: Can such flawlessness of execution be maintained until the end? Evidently, it can. The sounds of horns and woodwinds and strings, singly or in vast choirs, never cease melting and morphing seamlessly into one another even as their distinct individual sonorities are retained. I can think of no other recording that reveals so much of the subtlety and clarity of Bruckner's voicings and orchestrations, and of no orchestra that has played them with more poise and grace.

The recordings of Symphonies 4 (the 1886 Nowak edition, aka 1878/80, as labeled here) and 7, released singly a few years ago, are of more or less standard length for Bruckner performance, at 66 and 65 minutes, respectively, but seem to unfold no faster than Celibidache's far longer readings of these works —and, for that matter, no slower than anyone else's. They seem to take precisely the amount of time they require, a duration not entirely measurable in minutes. These are Bruckner's sunniest, most popular symphonies —like Beethoven's 7th or Schubert's 9th, perfect constructions full of light, air, grace, and, in 4, the spirit of the dance. In Schaller's hands, in the opening of 4 —one of the most hushed, expectant beginnings of any symphony —the senses of space and anticipation of great things to come (and come they do) is remarkable. As the solo horn finishes its call, the descending, diminishing scales in the low strings disappear as much into the depth of the cathedral's vast space as into the bottom of the audible. Something of profound significance seems to conclude in near silence —and we are still only a minute into the work. This sets the tone for all that follows.

In the first movement of Symphony 7, the volleying brass choirs that build to the first statement of the stern second theme have perhaps never been so clearly articulated, which makes an entirely different rhythmic sense for this passage. The Adagio has an inevitability of pace and development; the horn chorale just before the lyrical second subject is all warm perfection, and the great chorale for brass and Wagner tubas, Bruckner's elegy for Wagner, is better played and shaped than I have ever heard it —it seems to emerge from the cathedral walls themselves to coalesce in space, as if great chunks of silent, sun-warmed stone had suddenly found voice. In the Scherzo, the intricate syncopation and counterpoint of strings, woodwinds, and trumpet is meticulously pointed.

My notes for Schaller's Symphony 9, released here for the first time, are a long list of similar moments. I'll mention only that, early in the Adagio, Bruckner's "Farewell to Life," for horns and Wagner tubas, has never sounded more tenderly elegiac or been so lingeringly long a leave-taking; the slow fugato section halfway through builds with a sense of stealthy awe I have not heard elsewhere; and the great dissonant chord 3:30 before the end is so rich in tonal colors, so well balanced, that it sounds less like a dissonance than a hitherto unsuspected consonance built of precisely the same notes. Overall, Schaller leads a performance that can stand with the finest recordings of the traditional three-movement version of this symphony. The grace, delicacy, and inerrancy of the brasses alone make it worth hearing, but the woodwinds and strings are just as fine, and Schaller's shaping and pacing of the work's overall structure seem an ideal marriage of ardor, precision, and dignity. But while nothing sounds any less clear, this recording, taped by a different team than documented Symphonies 4 and 7, has not quite the same qualities of air, light, and transparency.

The Symphony 9 concludes with Bruckner scholar William Carragan's latest (2010) version of his completion of the Finale. Bruckner either did not complete the Finale before his death, or did and those pages are now lost. (For a fuller discussion of this and the Finale's various completions, see my feature story in the March 2010 issue.) Carragan has been working on his completion for over 30 years. With the exception of the Coda (of which nothing but a few sketches survives), there is general agreement among Brucknerians about the precise lengths, in bars, of most of the missing passages. This means that the formal constraints on any completion attempting to hew closely to Bruckner's intentions, so far as those can be known or inferred, are considerable: Compose, in Bruckner's late style and the style of this symphony, a passage of, say, 6 or 16 or 32 bars linking two much longer blocks of music, the second of which begins in a manner very different from how the first ends.

Carragan's links are invariably fascinating and sometimes brilliant, but less than half of them sound to me like something Bruckner himself might have composed. In the movement's latter half, a soft recurrence of the Finale's great chorale, here led by solo trumpet, is embroidered by Carragan with woodwind obbligati that seem superfluous; and, late in the movement, what Carragan calls a "catastrophe" chord, immediately after the recurrence of the great peroration for brasses and strings, sounds melodramatic. The brass in the complex coda, which is entirely Carragan's, ring out like an entire cathedral's worth of bells; this is truly impressive, and in keeping with the sense of exultant exaltation Bruckner seems to have been building to all along. But in several instances in which the number of bars missing is not so clear as elsewhere in Bruckner's manuscript, Carragan assumes considerably wider gaps than do other scholars and completers of this work, which means that his completion contains more music wholly written by someone other than Bruckner than does any other. This would not necessarily be a problem did it not seem so clear (to my ears, at least), in most cases, where Bruckner's hand rises from the score and Carragan's descends; the entire movement ends up sounding patchy, episodic, less than the sum of its parts.

All of this is, of course, ultimately a matter of personal taste. For what it's worth, I never have such a reaction when listening to the 2008 edition of the Finale completion by Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John A. Phillips, and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, which sounds to me consistently like Bruckner from beginning to end. In February 2012, Simon Rattle will conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in the 2011 edition of the SMPC completion in Berlin and New York. I hope that version is recorded as well.

Nonetheless, Carragan's completion will probably never be better or more sympathetically performed than it is here, and I have never heard a better articulation of the Finale's difficult fugue. Consider Carragan's Finale a bonus —those who recoil at a completion by any hand other than Bruckner's can, after all, stop their CD players after the 9th's Adagio and still be more than satisfied by and with this entire set: some of the finest orchestral recordings ever made of some of the finest performances ever played of three of the most important works of the standard repertoire.—Richard Lehnert

blackwash's picture

I would recommend that potential buyers enthused by this review read it more carefully than I did and check out samples online. The 4th and 7th are indeed very nice recordings (if not quite at the top of a strong list of contenders).

However, I failed to note that the 9th was recorded by a different team and, alas, it sounds significantly worse. The problem is a distinct lack of bass which robs the music of its foundation. The excellent Reference Recordings version from a few years back is much more natural in all respects, and the various Wand versions I have also provide a more balanced experience.

Unfortunately, I bought the package for the completed 9th, and so now I have a 4th and 7th to add to a pile of very good 4th and 7ths, and a poor sounding 9th since you can only buy all three symphonies as a set. Unless you are cunning.

I would strongly suggest buying from where you can sample all the tracks, and then buy only the symphonies you actually need in FLAC.