April 22, 2021


Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, with reconstructed Finale, transcribed for organ by Gerd Schaller. Gerd Schaller, organ. Profil. $22.99 (2 CDs).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.

     There is no easy route to the core of Bruckner. The composer himself made it difficult to get to his innermost thoughts, despite the devout Catholicism that was foundational to his life and his musical thinking. Equally foundational was the organ, on which he was famous for his performances. But he wrote virtually nothing, certainly nothing of significance, for his chosen instrument, instead using the full orchestra to convey organ-like sounds and textures. And then he was so unsure of what he was doing, at least for a time, that he allowed friends and colleagues – misguided, although well-intentioned – to revise much of his symphonic output, or persuade him to do so himself. Despite all this, or in light of it, there is a growing belief in some quarters that getting to the essence of Bruckner requires delving into the organ – deriving the organic from the organ-ic, if you will. And that has led to several wholly unauthorized, inauthentic, yet fascinating arrangements of Bruckner symphonies for performance as organ works: No. 0 by Erwin Horn, for example, and No. 5 by Matthias Giesen. Now the most ambitious, effective and revelatory transcription/arrangement of all has appeared, of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9, made and performed by Gerd Schaller. And talk about over-reaching, or at least reaching farther than anyone has before: this is Schaller’s own four-movement version of the Ninth, including an excellently completed finale that Schaller himself has conducted to remarkable effect in a recording for the Profil label. The same label’s release of Schaller’s organ version of the symphony is either a huge stride forward in getting to the essence of Bruckner or an unjustifiable overreaching that shows the salient characteristics of Schaller, perhaps, but not of Bruckner. In either case, it is really a must-hear for anyone who loves Bruckner’s music and is fascinated by its ethos and the thorny problems of performance and understanding that it inevitably produces. Schaller is a formidable organist and an exceptionally thoughtful Brucknerian, as he has shown time and again not only with his handling of the Ninth but also with his determination to present a complete set of the symphonies by the time of the Bruckner bicentennial in 2024. Schaller is a conductor, scholar and organist who resolutely refuses to take the easy way out, as is clear throughout the organ version of the Ninth. He plays the magnificent Eisenbarth organ in the former Cistercian Abbey Church of Ebrach, Germany – an instrument with enormous capabilities for generating a thoroughly Romantic sound. And then he refuses to use it that way, virtually eliminating swell effects from the Bruckner Ninth and opting instead for tremendous clarity and an overall sound that is polyphonic rather than harmonically blended in 19th-century mode. The fascinating result is that Schaller’s organ version of Bruckner’s Ninth sounds like a closely related organ symphony by Bruckner, not like a transcription at all. The loss of tremolo effects, which the organ, as a wind instrument, cannot produce as strings can, is one reason for this. The linear clarity that Schaller brings to his work and his performance is another. From time to time, listeners have to remind themselves that this is the Bruckner Ninth and not something akin to it, closely related but fundamentally somewhat different. The shadowy character of the Scherzo is a particularly clear example of this: in Schaller’s organ version, there is less mystery and less schattenhaft character to the movement, but there is greater flow than in the orchestral original and a strong sense both of integration with the first and third movements and of the Scherzo as a bridge between them. As for the fourth movement, which Bruckner almost but not quite completed, Schaller’s very fine version is thoroughly Brucknerian in orchestral guise, while on the organ there is a greater Baroque flavor to the music, a use of polyphony that fits the organ version very well and ensures that the movement is a capstone of the whole work rather than, in any sense or to any degree, an afterthought. It is certainly possible to argue that organ versions of the Bruckner symphonies are wrong-headed from the start, and it is inarguable that they are inauthentic. But when well done and well played, they can be genuinely revelatory – and Schaller’s organ version of the Bruckner Ninth most certainly is.

     Another way to get to the underlying elements of Bruckner is to consider the only symphony he wrote that he did not extensively revise: No. 6. Although less often played than several of his other symphonies, the Sixth, with its strong philosophical bent and pervasive two-against-three rhythms, encapsulates much of what makes Bruckner’s symphonic approach distinctive. A new BR Klassik release featuring the symphony played by Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons is particularly sensitive to the care with which Bruckner constructed this symphony and the many ways in which it sums up his creative thinking – the use of organ points, for example, and the use of sonata rather than ternary form in the second movement. The noteworthy designation of the first movement, Majestoso rather than Maestoso, is probably a churchlike reference to sovereign power rather than the more-general notion of majesterial tempo indicated by the more-common word. Jansons, who was a very fine Bruckner conductor, takes full advantage of the extremely high quality of the orchestra here, for example in the quiet intensity of the main theme of the first movement – which derives from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, in another indication of the ways in which No. 6 provides keys to the composer’s underlying thinking and feeling. The very solemn second movement, actually designated Sehr feierlich, is filled with yearning in this performance, and its many somber touches are effectively conveyed. The unique and distinctly odd Scherzo, in its slow speed and lack of any significant theme, is also revelatory, highlighting elements that, by their absence here, show up all the more strongly as crucial to Bruckner’s symphonic thinking elsewhere. And the finale, marked nicht zu schnell in a symphony whose entirety may be said to be not too fast, is a movement filled with refined structure and care of construction – not the pinnacle of refinement to be found in the Eighth, but a big step toward that symphony’s conclusion and thus, like so much else in the Sixth, a worthy summation of Bruckner’s symphonic thinking and a welcome window into the means through which he brought that thinking to fruition. It is tempting to see this specific performance not only as encompassing Bruckner’s thoughts and approaches but also as representing Jansons’ own last word on the symphony. That would be a touch misleading, however, for although Jansons died in 2019 and this release is new, the performance itself dates to 2015. Still, it is by any criteria a highly effective rendition of a symphony that, standing more or less midway in Bruckner’s oeuvre, explicates the composer’s underlying concerns and the way he presented them musically – even as it delineates the methods he uses to bring his interests and beliefs to the sometimes-unwilling ears of his listeners, still including some who find his music’s underpinnings difficult to comprehend despite the complex beauty with which those bedrock ideas are expressed.

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