November 02, 2023

(++++) APPROACHING 200

Bruckner: Symphony No. 2 (1877 version). Bruckner Orchester Linz conducted by Markus Poschner. Capriccio. $19.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; Prelude in C (Perger Prelude); Philipp Maintz: Te Deum | Window on Bruckner’s 7th Symphony | Choral Prelude XL for Organ Solo. Hansjörg Albrecht, organ. Oehms. $17.99.

     Among the many disruptions of life occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdowns it brought throughout the world in 2020, one of the most disappointing from a musical standpoint was the derailing of the many plans to honor Beethoven on the 250th anniversary of his birth. Undeterred by that circumstance and clearly determined not to allow anything similar to happen again, musicians and aficionados of Bruckner are building steadily toward grand celebrations of the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2024. Projects of all sorts to honor Bruckner are well along, and musical offerings of many types have been appearing for some time – and they are uniformly of high quality, even when sometimes conceptualized rather peculiarly.

     The symphonic cycle conducted by Markus Poschner for the Capriccio label is one of the more-ambitious and more-interesting bicentennial offerings. Poschner is leading recordings of all the versions of all the Bruckner symphonies – although, the Bruckner symphonies being the mishmash of multiple versions that most of them are, not everyone will necessarily agree on what “all the versions” means. In the sequence being used for this cycle, there is one version of the F minor symphony, one of No. “0,” and one each of Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 9. There are two each of Nos. 1, 2 and 8, and three each of Nos. 3 and 4 – plus, in the case of the “Romantic,” the interim finale that is now called “Country Fair.” The latest release in this series has Poschner conducting the very fine Bruckner Orchester Linz in the 1877 version of Symphony No. 7 – in a reading that is very much at odds with old-fashioned thinking about making Bruckner stolid and slow. Poschner even outdoes Mario Venzago, an effective proponent of lighter and faster Bruckner: Venzago’s recording of this version of No. 7 lasts 57 minutes, while Poschner’s runs only 52. The first movement has a very brisk start, with nice string clarity and especially sonorous lower strings. The movement can sound episodic but carries well here, with distinctly Schubertian elements. The longstanding "cathedral of sound" approach to Bruckner is absent here in favor of sectional clarity and careful attention to the interrelationship of themes. Bruckner actually excised quite a bit from this 1877 version, which is some 15 minutes shorter than the 1872 one – and Poschner makes it positively fleet. The contrapuntal complexity of this movement is unusually clear, and although the pauses are certainly present, they seem like brief moments of catching one's breath before plunging headlong into the next section. The 1872 version of this work was at times called the “Rest” symphony for its extended pauses – but no one would refer to this version, especially as Poschner handles it, with that title.

     The second movement is warm and pleasantly bucolic, a true Andante as marked – Poschner has no interest in trying to make it seem darker than it is. The movement is not as fully "Brucknerian" as in other symphonies starting with No. 3: the flow is gentler, the use of brass chorales more subdued. There is a pervasive sense here of peace and of enjoyment of the "now." The striving and drama heard so often in later symphonies are mostly absent, and the movement rolls on underpinned by calm. It is comparatively short as Bruckner's slow movements go (less than 14 minutes under Poschner), but seems to stretch out placidly for a considerable distance until, at the end, it does not so much conclude as evaporate. As the third movement begins, its strong rhythmic emphasis and speedy pace produce immediate and considerable contrast to the second. The strings' precision is impressive, as are the brass interjections. The absence of repeats (which Bruckner removed in the 1877 version) makes the movement sound a trifle odd structurally, but the result is a more-compressed, less-discursive Scherzo than in 1872 – and one that fits the overall quickness and comparative lightness of this performance well. The finale has a highly dramatic opening, with timpani emphases used to very good effect. The lovely second theme is as lyrically Schubertian as can be, unfolding calmly in strong contrast to the strength of the movement's start. Trumpet tattoos only serve to emphasize the easy flow of most of the material, and even when the music subsides into near-stasis a third of the way through, it does so only long enough to catch its breath (so to speak) before embarking on yet another upbeat, positive and altogether pleasant sequence of themes. The development is truncated – Bruckner cut a great deal of it after 1872 – but the result is not so much a shortchanging as a kind of compression that maintains the overall pleasant and positive mood, in which Poschner revels. The faster sections simply burst with energy after the slower intervals – although the coda is actually a touch too fast, sounding as if Poschner is in a hurry to wrap things up. This is a minor quibble, though: the conclusion fits the overall interpretation, even if it overdoes it to a small extent.

     Poschner’s recordings are being released in no particular order, but another Bruckner cycle is being offered very methodically indeed. This is a series on Oehms presenting the symphonies in arrangements for organ – a tribute to Bruckner’s fame as an organist (his improvisations were well-known long before his symphonies were) and also an acknowledgment of ways in which Bruckner used the orchestra in a manner influenced by his knowledge of the organ. Bruckner actually composed very little organ music, so the two-minute “Perger Prelude” from 1884 is an interesting way to open the disc featuring Symphony No. 7: the little organ work is brief, solemn and strong, and played by Hansjörg Albrecht with all his usual sure style. Next on the disc is another “Bruckner Window” by Philipp Maintz (born 1977): these CDs feature contemporary composers’ tributes to or musical comments on Bruckner, and Maintz has previously had ones for Symphonies Nos. “0” and 4. The work heard here packs a lot into five minutes: its structure is stop-and-go, not unlike that of some of Bruckner’s own symphonic movements, and its sound is mildly but not overly dissonant – resulting in a suitable accompaniment to Symphony No. 7 as a kind of evaluation and lookback from a modern perspective.

     The symphony’s opening fits quite well on organ in this Erwin Horn transcription. The mixture of drama and lyricism comes through with considerable power, but there is delicacy as well as the movement progresses, and the blending of sound is impressive. Contrasts between strong full-orchestral passages and sectional material come through especially well, thanks to Albrecht’s sensitivity to the organ’s sound-contrasting capabilities. The movement flows naturally and, although it never quite sounds like a work for organ, it fits the instrument better than do some others in this series. In the second movement, there is a gentle flow that emphasizes its lyrical and almost pastoral qualities despite its association with the death of Wagner. Albrecht downplays the movement’s funereal elements: there is warmth and there are certainly passages of melancholy, but the registration choices and sound blends chosen here make this a work of beauty and flow. Obviously the unusual elements of the orchestration are missing: there is no contrabass tuba, nor are there four Wagner tubas. But the music swells impressively into very full sound as appropriate, and the organ's lower reaches effectively convey Bruckner's intentions. Listeners who know the symphony will almost be able to hear the climactic cymbal clash, even though of course it is absent: Horn's transcription and Albrecht's playing convey its effect very well.

     The third movement here is not quite as strong a contrast to the second as one would wish. It is rather slow-paced, certainly not Sehr schnell as marked, although it builds carefully from the opening. The pacing remains somewhat leisurely, with Albrecht adding stops and expanding the sound effectively through the main section. The Trio has a quietly blanketing effect, almost a hesitancy at times, without strong forward motion; what it does offer is considerable gentleness. Then the Scherzo bubbles along pleasantly enough on its return and ends convincingly. As the finale begins, the pacing is just right (Bewegt, doch nicht schnell) and the comparative lightness of the organ transcription at the start contrasts well with the somewhat heavier sound of the Scherzo. Albrecht, as usual, is expert at building from thinner portions of the score toward denser and more massive ones. The contrasts among the finale’s sections are handled well, although the movement is scarcely tight-knit. The pauses that give the movement its stop-and-start quality are accentuated to good effect, and Albrecht builds with care and attentiveness toward the conclusion, which is thoroughly satisfying – if not as monumental as that of the Eighth would be.

     The Bruckner symphony cycles featuring Poschner and Albrecht are only two of the bicentennial productions planned or in the works, but they are certainly two of the most important and interesting. The Bruckner celebration, while it cannot make up for the disappointment of the loss of the Beethoven one planned for 2020, looks as if it will certainly give the composer his due and, in so doing, give music lovers even more reasons to appreciate his works than they already have.

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