September 06, 2012
(++++) BRUCKNER REMADE – AGAIN
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $49.99 (3 CDs).
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 4, 7 and 9 (finale of No. 9 completed by William Carragan). Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $49.99 (4 CDs).
For many years, one of the most vexing questions in performing Bruckner’s music was: which Bruckner? The old canard that Bruckner did not so much write nine symphonies as write the same symphony nine times, while it still gets a chuckle, runs afoul not only of the fact that he wrote 11 symphonies (including Nos. 0 and “00”) but also of the reality that there are so many versions of the symphonies that the total number is at least 20. Contemplating which to play is a dizzying experience: the Third alone, for example, has six different versions. And while some versions of some symphonies were created by Bruckner himself – sometimes on his own, sometimes because he sought to make them more approachable and more likely to garner performances, sometimes under the pressure of well-meaning friends or advocates, sometimes for a combination of reasons – there are also some versions assembled long after the composer’s death by editors attempting to come up with something definitive, even if that meant creating a work that the composer himself definitely did not write. For example, in the case of the Eighth, the 1939 edition by Robert Haas uses the 1890 version as a jumping-off point and reincorporates into it some elements of the 1887 version that Bruckner had taken out in 1890; the result is an interesting symphony that is undeniably unauthentic. Bruckner even tinkered with the three symphonies officially published in only one version: Nos. 5-7. As for the Ninth – well, there is no doubt that Bruckner wanted it to be a four-movement work, and just as surely no doubt that his sketches for the finale are jumbled and incomplete. Bruckner said his Te Deum could be used as a finale, and this has sometimes been done – and in fact a Te Deum theme appears in the sketches for the finale. But the key of the Te Deum is inappropriate to conclude the symphony, and the juxtaposition of the works is dramatically and emotionally unsatisfactory, as Bruckner himself surely knew.
All this means that “authentic” is a notoriously slippery concept where Bruckner is concerned. This does not, however, mean that editors are finished looking for ways to polish and/or “authenticize” the symphonies. And one of the most intriguing efforts in that direction, or those directions, is now the basis of a fascinating new Bruckner cycle performed by Philharmonie Festiva under conductor Gerd Schaller. The orchestra, which is a top-notch one, was founded by Schaller in 2008 as an expansion of the Munich Bach Soloists: that ensemble is supplemented by members of the Munich Philharmonic, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Bavarian Staatsoper Orchestra, and invited guest artists. The foundation of Schaller’s cycle is the work of William Carragan, the latest in a line of distinguished musicologists and editors of Bruckner’s symphonies. Haas (1886-1960) created a variety of performing editions when he was director of the Austrian National Library. Leopold Nowak (1904-1991) succeeded Haas in that position and in Bruckner scholarship, and his editions, created with greater attentiveness to the original manuscripts and in a more-scientific way, are generally considered more accurate than those of Haas and are more frequently played. Carragan is now continuing Nowak’s work, even as other editors produce performing editions of some of the symphonies in some of their versions.
By undertaking to do a full cycle using Carragan’s versions of the symphonies, Schaller has done something genuinely new. The differences between the Carragan versions and others are not always major and will not always be readily apparent even to the informed listener – although Carragan contributes some of the explanatory booklet notes for the first two volumes of Schaller’s cycle. But some of what Carragan has done will be clearly audible to those who know Bruckner. For example, in the finale of Symphony No. 1 in Carragan’s edition of the 1866 version, it may not be obvious that the trombone notes reminiscent of Wagner’s Rienzi persist longer or that the trills in the fugue rise instead of falling – but the more-abrupt, more-striking beginning of the first movement will be clear enough to take listeners familiar with the work aback. In Carragan’s edition of the 1872 version of No. 2, the rests before the first-movement recapitulation and before the repeat sections of the scherzo may or may not be immediately clear, but the order of the movements – with the scherzo placed second rather than third – will certainly make listeners sit up and take notice. Carragan points out that, with the movements in this sequence, “the last note of each movement is the first accented note of the next,” but even listeners unaware of this structural detail will notice the very different effect that this symphony has when played using Bruckner’s original concept as edited by Carragan.
As for No. 3, the version played by Schaller is, to date, unique – a world première recording. The first version of this symphony dates to 1873, and while the Nowak edition of that version gives listeners an indisputable look at Bruckner’s original thinking about what is frequently called the “Wagner Symphony,” this much-revised work is also often played in its 1887 or 1889 versions (both also edited by Nowak), and there are occasional forays into other years, such as the Adagio of 1876. But never, until now, has anyone tried to perform the 1874 version of this symphony, which exists in only one copy score and represents some genuinely interesting thinking on Bruckner’s part. Here, the composer substantially modified and enriched the symphony’s textures, making already-complex rhythms even more so, and creating an altogether warmer sound that looks forward to the later symphonies in a variety of intriguing ways. There is no doubt that this is a “transitional” version of the symphony, lying between the rather stark original of 1873 and the more-formed versions of 1877 and 1889 – from both of which Bruckner actually removed some of the contrapuntal and rhythmic enrichments he had added in 1874. The 1874 symphony sounds in many ways like a different work from the more-familiar versions of No. 3, and even listeners who have a hard time figuring out just what has changed will notice numerous instances, large and small, in which Carragan’s edition of the 1874 version brings out details – or elaborates sections – in ways never before heard in a recording. A fascinating work in its own right, and a beautifully performed one – with the same excellent playing and top-notch sound accorded Schaller’s Nos. 1 and 2 – this Bruckner Third is a must-have for anyone seeking a fuller understanding of the composer’s thinking and his compositional prowess.
The recordings of Nos. 1-3 were made from live performances in July 2011 at the Ebrach Festival, held in a small town an hour west of Bayreuth. The remarkable sound quality comes from the extreme care that was obviously used to capture the resonance of the Abbey Church of Ebrach, which dates to the 13th century. Symphonies 4, 7 and 9 were recorded live in the same venue – No. 4 in 2007, No. 7 in 2008 and No. 9 in 2010. The relationship between Bruckner and religion is undoubted – the Ninth is dedicated “to my dear God” – but the recording of orchestras in church venues is problematic for various technical reasons. The way the engineers overcame these problems is quite wonderful, and the overall effect of the venue is almost palpable: those famously long rests are never completely quiet here, since the music fades so slowly that it never quite reaches complete inaudibility before the next phrase begins. The effect is quite remarkable and absolutely right for these works. Most of the sound is, in fact, SACD quality even though these releases are standard CDs.
The extent to which the venue matters is clear in the opening of No. 4, whose hushed expectancy is tremendously enhanced by the cathedral’s sonic characteristics: the descending scales in low strings simply disappear into vast spaces, promising profundity and a deep sense of meaning to come – and setting the stage, within the symphony’s first minute, for a thoughtful, elegantly paced and thoroughly beautiful performance. The versions of Nos. 4 and 7 are essentially those of Nowak – there is little for Carragan to do in either. No. 4 is the 1878/1880 version most commonly played, and No. 7 is the 1885 version, the only one for this symphony. Schaller nevertheless makes these performances very much his own. The subtlety and clarity of Philharmonie Festiva’s playing are simply remarkable, and Schaller’s dedication to Bruckner’s intentions gives the works Classical poise while also showing Bruckner’s roots in Schubert. These readings provide a level of gracefulness seldom heard in Bruckner’s symphonies, thanks in large part to Schaller’s intelligent decision not to throw in multiple unwritten ritards within the movements, even though such slowdowns have become standard practice in much Bruckner interpretation. The Adagio of No. 7 deserves special mention. An elegy and eulogy, written as Wagner was dying and completed after his death, the movement under Schaller gets a particularly gorgeous chorale for brass and Wagner tubas, shaped just about perfectly and with warmth that surely, in part, comes from the cathedral’s marvelous sonic environment.
As wonderful as the performances of Nos. 4 and 7 are, though, it is Schaller’s rendition of the Carragan-completed No. 9 that is the high point of this set, even though – very unfortunately – the sound here is not quite as good as in Nos. 4 and 7 (same venue, different recording team, less sonic lightness and transparency). This is the world première recording of Carragan’s 2010 version of the finale – a project on which Carragan has been working for more than 30 years (recordings have previously been made of his 1983 and 2006 completions). The first three movements of the symphony are gorgeously shaped by Schaller, with especially knowing treatment of details of the Adagio. There are too many highlights to list, including the superb playing of the horns and Wagner tubas, the grace and delicacy of the winds, the wonderfully precise and warm intonation of the strings, and the immensely rich presentation of the famous dissonant chord near the third movement’s end.
Carragan writes in some detail, in the booklet for this set, about his thinking about the finale and his rationale for the many decisions he had to make in completing Bruckner’s sketches. His thinking is both scholarly and musically elegant, and his handling of the missing passages of the movement is always highly intelligent and managed with great skill. But it is not, of course, “right,” since no one knows what Bruckner would actually have done. And in fact, Carragan sets the bar higher for himself than others trying to finish this movement have set it: the number of missing bars is clear in most parts of the movement, but where it is not, Carragan tends to assume that more music is missing than others have assumed – which means Carragan has to write more to fill out the movement. There is no “right” way to do this, and the coda is especially problematic, since almost no music for it has survived. But Carragan’s decisions all make musical sense, even if they tend to result in passages that do not quite sound like what Bruckner himself would have composed. For example, there are some obbligato woodwinds that do not really fit into one chorale passage, and a somewhat overdone “catastrophe” chord (so described by Carragan, who identifies three “catastrophe” points in the movement). Arguments about these and other elements, though, can go on endlessly, and probably will. What really matters is whether, to the non-academic listener, this finale makes Bruckner’s Ninth sound like a completed work. And the answer is that it does: for all the claims through the years that the three-movement Ninth is somehow complete in itself, it never quite feels that way, even when performed as skillfully and intelligently as it is by Schaller and Philharmonie Festiva. Bruckner was not, after all, Schubert, who left many symphonies incomplete (not just the “Unfinished”): Bruckner always intended to leave his Ninth as a four-movement work, and his many sketches are, tantalizingly, almost but not quite enough to show how he wanted the symphony to conclude.
The biggest problem with the Carragan completion is not that it is without merit or thought – it has a considerable amount of both. The issue is that it seems to have a bit too much of Carragan in it: at numerous points, it just does not sound like Bruckner, even when using Bruckner’s thematic material in ways that, analytically, are in accord with what Bruckner did elsewhere. The result is a kind of stop-and-start feeling to the movement, with Bruckner’s writing progressing to a point, then Carragan’s starting, then Bruckner’s resuming, and so on. Of course, this is true for any completion of this movement, but somehow Carragan’s seems to create a particularly episodic finale. Nevertheless, it is a thoughtful and effective finale that brings the symphony to a more-satisfying conclusion than any three-movement performance can offer. Carragan is excellent at what he does; and with Schaller as his partner in excellence in this Bruckner cycle, Profil is in the process of releasing one of the best sets of Bruckner symphonies ever recorded.