June 29, 2017
(++++) PLAYING THE LESS-PLAYED
Bruckner: Symphony No. 1; March in D minor; Three Pieces for Orchestra. Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Oberösterreichisches Jugendsinfonieorchester conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $27.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, with reconstructed Finale. Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Bruckner did not write a large number of works, but he certainly wrote many more than are usually heard. Cycles of the symphonies (nine, 10 or 11 of them, depending on how the conductor sees Bruckner’s symphonic production) are fairly common. But when it comes to concerts and recordings of individual symphonies, the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth and incomplete Ninth are far more likely to be heard than are the others. Bruckner’s three Masses, his string quartet and quintet, even his Te Deum are much less often programmed. So a chance to explore a bit more of Bruckner than usual is most welcome, especially when performances are as fine as readings of Bruckner have become in recent years – which is very fine indeed. Gustavo Gimeno’s PentaTone SACD of the Symphony No. 1 is unusual even before listeners hear the four short pieces that fill out the disc, because Gimeno does not use the version of this symphony usually recorded, which is the one of 1877/1884 (termed the “Linz” version even though it was actually made in Vienna). Gimeno opts instead for the so-called “Vienna” version, an 1890-91 revision of the 1868 version that Bruckner made for the symphony’s première, which itself was a slight revision of the earliest version (1866). The “versioning” of Bruckner is enormously complicated, and conductors’ choices have many motivations and rationales. Listeners, though, have a simpler time of it, since they can hear multiple versions of the same symphony and judge for themselves which they prefer (or can prefer several of them). The version conducted by Gimeno and played with great strength and rhythmic sensitivity by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg differs in numerous ways from the one more commonly heard, and while it has not generally been favored by conductors and is thus not very familiar to audiences, it has a certain strength and solidity, a kind of late-Bruckner shaping, that makes it quite attractive. The First is a substantial symphony in this guise, not substantially longer than in earlier versions but tighter in structure and more assured in construction. Gimeno makes a very good case for this version of Bruckner’s First, and even listeners who decide they prefer a different version of the symphony will benefit from hearing this one. Along with it, Gimeno offers four short pieces from Bruckner’s earlier compositional days – study pieces all, none of them particularly significant or genuinely comparable to any of the symphonies, but all of them intriguing for the way they show Bruckner mastering orchestration, searching for the sound he was later to discover and polish, and producing pieces in which simplicity of style and a rather Schubertian lightness of approach are dominant. No one will or ought to buy this disc for the March and Three Pieces for Orchestra, but Bruckner lovers should welcome the addition of these rarities to their collections.
The whole “version” argument over Bruckner’s symphonies is irrelevant only once: the Sixth Symphony exists in just a single version, Bruckner having at this time (1879-81) developed considerable confidence in his own abilities. It is therefore ironic that this is the least frequently played of Bruckner’s mature symphonies, and is a work that has long puzzled analysts, conductors and audiences. A new Gramola release gives it the splendid Rémy Ballot treatment, which means very expansive tempos that never drag, tremendous attention to inner voices and subtleties of orchestration and rhythm, and a firm understanding of structure that seems to flow as much from the conductor’s emotional involvement as from his intellectual analysis. This is the fourth Ballot Bruckner symphony to be released, and the sequence of them is itself distinctly unusual: the other three are the Third (in its huge original version), the Eighth and the incomplete Ninth. Ballot’s Bruckner is inevitably slow in clock time, but that is not how it feels: it comes across as expansive, measured and stately. And this serves the Sixth particularly well. Certainly this is an odd symphony by Bruckner’s standards, from a first movement marked “Majestoso” to a peculiar slow Scherzo that is almost themeless. Ballot’s pacing and the excellent playing of the Oberösterreichisches Jugendsinfonieorchester, a superb “youth orchestra” whose members are among the finest young musicians in Europe, allow the Sixth to unfold at what seems a purely natural pace, as if it could not possibly be handled any more quickly (although it almost invariably is). Ballot dwells on the many modal elements of the symphony, which lend it an unsettling sound even for listeners who do not know how Bruckner achieves the effect. The many unusual elements here, such as the blurring of the end of the first movement’s development section into its recapitulation in such a way as to produce the movement’s climax, are handled sensitively but matter-of-factly by Ballot, as if the structure of the Sixth unfolds as naturally as do the tempos of its individual movements. The sonata-form Adagio, a rarity for Bruckner, is especially fine here, tender and moving in a way that Buckner’s more-massive slow movements often are not. The Sixth does take some getting used to, being so unlike Bruckner’s other later symphonies in so any ways, but the freshness of approach of Ballot and his youth orchestra make the journey more than worthwhile.
Bruckner’s Ninth lies at the opposite end of the frequency-of-performance spectrum from the Sixth: it is enormously popular and by any standards a great and monumental work. It is also not complete in three movements, no matter how vociferously conductors (even including Ballot) argue that it is. Bruckner almost completed the finale and always intended to, and his remark near the end of his life that his Te Deum could be played as the fourth movement of the Ninth must have been born of emotional devotion (the Ninth is dedicated “to my dear God”) rather than musicality, since neither the key nor the content of the Te Deum fits the first three movements of the Ninth at all well. Not surprisingly, there have been a number of attempts to complete Bruckner’s Ninth, as there have also been with, for example, Mahler’s Tenth. But unlike the Mahler work, which exists in several interesting performable versions, Bruckner’s Ninth has resisted any sort of completion on which performers and audiences can agree. The state of the finale is one reason: the part that is missing is the critical section in which Bruckner would have brought everything together to a huge climax. Also, Bruckner’s work grew bolder and grander in many ways in each of his last completed symphonies, from the Sixth through the Eighth, and there is no doubt that he would have wanted in his Ninth – with that amazing dedication – to attain previously unheard-of heights. That fact makes it impossible to be sure what the composer would have done; indeed, the desire to strive ever higher may be one reason he simply could not complete this symphony. But with all that said, it is possible to perform the Ninth as a four-movement work, and the reading by Gerd Schaller and Philharmonie Festiva on the Profil label is an exceptionally fine instance of doing so. Schaller is an excellent Bruckner conductor, and he himself has completed the Ninth for this live recording, using the very extensive material Bruckner left behind while adding to it, in its missing sections, in ways that are absolutely true to Bruckner’s sound universe and to the deeply spiritual garments in which the composer certainly wanted his Ninth to be clothed. Schaller treats the first three movements with solemnity and care, giving them considerable breadth that results in a full hour of performance time – although this length does not compare with Ballot’s astonishingly extended 77 minutes. Schaller basically paces the first three movements as if the Ninth is structurally (if not emotionally) similar to the Eighth, and this pays considerable dividends when the fourth movement begins. It is important to remember that Bruckner did compose the start of this movement and did complete the vast majority of it, the primary fragmentation coming only late in the finale (admittedly, distressingly so). Schaller’s solution to the incomplete nature of this fourth movement is measured and elegant, and there is nothing in it that does not sound like Bruckner: pacing, thematic merging, dynamics and orchestration are all eminently Brucknerian. Of course this is not Bruckner, or not wholly Bruckner, and of course the composer would not have finished the Ninth exactly this way. But Schaller’s completion is exceptionally convincing, enough so that other conductors may wish to take it up – as multiple conductors took up Deryck Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s Tenth and made it the “standard” performance version. Listeners will have to judge this very fine recording on its own merits, which may be difficult for those who are hyper-familiar with three-movement readings of the Ninth and would find any fourth movement jarring. Actually, anyone simply wanting a very fine, very well-played version of the three-movement Ninth will find Schaller’s eminently satisfactory. But the fourth movement makes this recording a rarity and a real treat for anyone who loves Bruckner and wonders what might have been and whether the might-have-been would have sounded a great deal like what Schaller offers here.