January 30, 2020


Bruckner: Symphony No. 1 (1891 version). Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $17.99.

Brahms in Transcription. Uriel Tsachor, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Bruckner is well-known for his penchant for revising his symphonies and offering them in multiple versions at different times, frequently to increase the likelihood of their performance and often in accordance with the recommendations of well-meaning but often ill-informed and overly musically conservative friends and colleagues. Most of his symphonies exist in several forms, and as interest in Bruckner’s music has grown in recent years, so has the interest of conductors in the various variants. Indeed, it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense that a conductor with a strong commitment to Bruckner would want to lead and record at least some of the symphonies in different versions, allowing musicians and the public at large to explore the differences and debate to their hearts’ content the positives and negatives of the alterations that Bruckner made. This is the road down which Gerd Schaller, one of the preeminent Brucknerians of our time, is currently traveling, with his plans to have recorded multiple versions of the Bruckner symphonies and also to have played them in concert by the 200th anniversary of Bruckner’s birth – that is, by 2024. Schaller is distinguished, among other things, for the tremendous seriousness with which he handles every Bruckner symphony, treating each of them – no matter which version he is using – as a unified and integrated whole. Thus, having previously recorded the 1866-68 version of Bruckner’s First, for a recording released in 2012, Schaller has now turned to the 1891 revision that Bruckner made of the score. His recording for Profil of a live performance is deeply committed and has about it not only authority but also a kind of implacability, as if this symphony could only develop and be performed in exactly this way – despite the obvious reality that Schaller and other conductors can and do perform it other ways as well. Schaller delivers the work with a level of conviction that makes the entire symphony sound tightly knit and inevitable in its progress from start to finish. The first movement, in particular, marches along with steadiness and steadfastness, and with a consistency that shows the skill at orchestration that Bruckner brought to the 1891 “Vienna” version – which differs from the earlier “Linz” version mainly in orchestration rather than through substantive changes in the themes and their working-out. Schaller follows the steady march of the first movement with a warm and elegant Adagio, after which the Scherzo emerges with certainty but also a certain level of gentleness. The finale here sounds much less disconnected or meandering than it does in some performances – indeed, it comes across as tightly knit and a worthy capstone to the entire work. Schaller’s pacing throughout is moderate and carefully considered; indeed, this whole performance exudes thoughtfulness and deep understanding of the music. And Philharmonie Festiva, which Schaller founded in 2008, plays, as always, with superb ensemble, tremendous authority, and absolute attentiveness to every nuance of Schaller’s leadership. The 1891 Bruckner First represents the composer’s reconsideration of a much earlier work at a time when he had attained considerable success. This recording represents Schaller’s apparent belief that both the earlier version and the later one are equally worthy, equally meaningful, and equally worthy of being heard again and again.

     One way in which orchestral works of the Romantic era were rethought and re-heard – and re-played in circumstances where no orchestra was available – was through transcriptions, which were a major part of musical life throughout the 19th century and for some time afterwards. There is quite a wealth of transcription out there, from Hummel’s arrangements of six Mozart symphonies for chamber group to Liszt’s famous and Friedrich Kalkbrenner’s less-famous transcriptions for piano of Beethoven’s symphonies. Indeed, piano transcriptions were for many years crucial to familiarizing audiences with a great deal of music, the piano being not only a crucial instrument and compositional tool for musicians but also a central part of many families’ homes. There were so many piano transcriptions of so much music that it is quite possible to put together a recital featuring “big-name” music with “big-name” transcribers and have it filled with world premières. That is just what pianist Uriel Tsachor has done on a new MSR Classics release: eight of the 12 pieces he plays are world première recordings. The disc focuses entirely on Brahms, with one interesting element of the program being that Brahms is both transcriber and, as it were, “transcribee.” The CD includes Brahms’ own transcriptions of Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 and 7, which absolutely have to be declared definitive, as well as Brahms’ transcriptions of the Scherzo from Schumann’s Piano Quintet and the Gavotte from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide. These four works, in and of themselves, show Brahms’ skill both as composer and as transcriber – and he was, after all, a considerable pianist, with thoroughgoing knowledge of the instrument’s expressive capabilities. But these four transcriptions have all been recorded before, and it is the other eight – five by Max Reger and three by Brahms’ close friend Theodor Kirchner – that are the real discoveries here. Kirchner’s three are all of Hungarian Dances, specifically nos. 15-17, and are all worthy to stand alongside Brahms’ own transcriptions for their sure command of the rhythmic material and their virtuosic but not too virtuosic demands on the performer. Tsachor plays all the dance transcriptions, the two by Brahms and three by Kirchner, with considerable élan and a fine sense of style – and even seems to have more than a bit of fun with the balance and color of the compositions. The real gems here, though, are Reger’s transcriptions from all four Brahms symphonies: the Andante sostenuto from No. 1, Adagio non troppo from No. 2, Andante and Poco allegretto from No. 3, and Andante moderato from No. 4. Reger, whose own music can sometimes be turgid, here provides considerable clarity, bringing his obviously firm understanding of Brahms’ style to these transcriptions, which are especially notable for retaining the slow movements’ expansiveness while effectively elucidating their overall structure. The virtuosic requirements here lie as much in balance and tonal expression as in handling a sheer proliferation of notes, and Tsachor’s admirable restraint, subtle understanding of the material, and great sensitivity to balance and tonal color, result in performances that are genuinely revelatory – of the art of excellent transcription, if not so much of the underlying art of music that is now, after all, quite familiar in its original form. The CD comes across as a tribute not only to Brahms but also to Reger and Kirchner, who handled these transcriptions with a substantial depth of knowledge and a finely tuned (pun intended) sensitivity to Brahms’ intentions and the unique sound of his music.

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