March 09, 2023


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; Françoise Choveaux: Bruckner Window VI—Poème pour orgue, Op. 285. Hansjörg Albrecht, organ. Oehms + YouTube. $14.99.

     The fascinatingly quixotic Oehms project to release Bruckner’s symphonies in transcriptions for organ, mostly made by Erwin Horn, continues to be as engaging as it is odd and historically unjustifiable. With Symphony No. 5, it also runs into some procedural problems that render one of its intriguing elements less satisfactory – although this is not an issue with the symphony transcription itself, nor with the always-exemplary playing of Hansjörg Albrecht.

     Bruckner’s Fifth is above all a work of counterpoint, and its structure is unusual: it is the composer’s only symphony whose opening movement starts with a slow introduction; the first and last movements are not only related thematically but also begin identically; and the second and third movements start with the same notes, albeit in very different tempos. The contrapuntal elements of the work translate rather well, if quite inauthentically, to the organ: this is in large measure a fugal symphony, with a double fugue on the finale’s main and chorale themes being a significant element – and one that Albrecht handles with his usual attentiveness to detail and exceptional coloristic abilities.

     Other parts of the symphony do not come across so well, however. One of the work’s nicknames is the “Pizzicato,” because three of the four movements (all except the Scherzo) begin with pizzicato strings – and this particular effect does not translate very satisfactorily to the organ, which is, after all, essentially a wind instrument. To be sure, “Pizzicato” is not Bruckner’s own designation for Symphony No. 5: he called it the “Fantastic.” But that is not particularly helpful, since the title – unlike that of No. 4, which he called the “Romantic” – does not fit the music to any notable extent.

     Whatever its nickname, this is a very large symphony, lasting more than 76 minutes in Albrecht’s organ performance. And that produces a problem for the concept of including a newly composed “Bruckner Window” with each organ version of a symphony. One was written for the Fifth, by Françoise Choveaux (born 1953), but it would have been a stretch to add its 10-minute length to that of the symphony itself: the old notion of an 80-minute maximum for CDs no longer applies, but 86 minutes would still really be stretching things, and there would arguably have been a diminution of sound quality to accommodate the additional music on a single disc. Therefore, Choveaux’ Poème pour orgue, Op. 285 has been relegated to a YouTube performance, where the sound quality and overall ambience do not measure up to those of the CD and where the ongoing visuals of Albrecht and of St. Margaret Munich, whose Klais Organ he plays, are a significant distraction from Choveaux’ work. The piece itself is a curious one: it flickers in and out of actual Bruckner themes, opens quietly and with delicacy and proceeds in that mode for two-and-a-half minutes, then swells significantly for a full minute, and then goes quiet again. As it continues, it contains lots of Bruckner elements but, because of the way Choveaux uses them, it sounds almost athematic. A sudden speedup around seven minutes in, with considerable dissonance, leads to a climax a minute later – after which the work goes nearly silent to the end. Actually, the last two minutes are more delicate and affecting than the rest of the piece, which accomplishes the stated goal of “commenting on” Bruckner through a modern idiom, but which in and of itself is somewhat underwhelming.

     In some ways, Bruckner’s Fifth is itself underwhelming in this organ version: however impressive Albrecht’s playing may sound, however respectful and well-thought-out Horn’s transcription may be, this is a symphony in which Bruckner very carefully thought through and assembled a variety of instrumental effects that collectively produce the elegantly contrapuntal elements of the music – and that simply do not exist in this recording, except in rather palely imitative form. Nevertheless, as with all the entries in this strange and strangely appealing series – this is the sixth of them, since Symphony No. “0” is included in the set – both the transcription and the performance contain attractive, even engrossing elements that occasionally shed new light on Bruckner and more often give aficionados of his music a chance to hear it in a genuinely beguiling way. These are basically recordings for Bruckner fanatics; they are certainly not for listeners new to the composer and his symphonies. And they repay audience fanaticism with some of their own: there may be no legitimate justification for turning Bruckner’s symphonies into organ works, but anyone who simply accepts that this can be done and therefore is being done will have to admit that Albrecht delivers each of these oddities, including the Fifth, with tremendous skill, absorption and compelling engagement.

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