February 01, 2024


Bruckner: Symphony No. 1 (1868 version). Bruckner Orchester Linz conducted by Markus Poschner. Capriccio. $16.99.

     One of the pleasures of the huge amount of attention being paid to Bruckner during the bicentennial of his birth is the chance to hear much-less-familiar versions of his symphonies. Capriccio continues to release excellent recordings, conducted by Markus Poschner, that will eventually result in making available 18 versions of the composer’s 11 symphonies – a totality that the producers of the series argue includes all actual variations of Bruckner’s symphonic production even as it omits “versions” that are in fact simply works-in-progress between authentically different symphonies. Arguments about this sort of thing are perpetual and will surely not end when the Poschner readings are all available. What is not arguable is that these are first-rate performances that take a genuinely fresh look at Bruckner the symphonist, shorn of much of the “cathedral-like monumentality” with which he is usually associated and instead giving him a clear place in the symphonic canon while highlighting ways in which he channeled the musical approaches of other composers (Schubert comes immediately to mind).

     In addition to clear-headed rethinkings of well-known versions of Bruckner’s best-known symphonies, Poschner has been recording some rarely heard material, such as the 1868 “Linz” version of Symphony No. 1. This symphony has the longest time span between versions of any by Bruckner: the later version, not yet released in the Poschner cycle, dates to 1891. And while the earlier version has occasionally appeared on disc before, for example in Georg Tintner’s justly renowned Bruckner cycle for Naxos, it is very much a rarity compared with the later iteration. Poschner makes a strong case for it in his conducting of the Bruckner Orchester Linz.

     Although Bruckner revised Symphony No. 1 in significant ways, he seems always to have had some affection for this early work, which he nicknamed Das kecke Beserl – literally “cheeky little broom,” but in this context something like “cheeky [or saucy] little maid.” The 1868 version, modest in scale at 45 minutes, neatly encapsulates the way Bruckner, early in his symphonic career, was channeling existing models while also finding his own way.

     As Poschner handles the work, the first movement has an immediate sense of forward propulsion that connects it strongly with existing Romantic symphonic models. The movement is not yet propelled by the three-against-two rhythms for which Bruckner would later become known, but is presented with a gentle, somewhat pastoral feeling and with slower sections that contrast well with the speedier ones. Much of the material is songful, with alternating dramatic elements that make the movement an exploration of contrasts. Intriguingly, already Bruckner does not hesitate to bring matters to a full stop before beginning a new section – a characteristic he will later explore much more fully. This tactic is especially notable just before the very end of the movement, which Poschner takes very quickly and decisively.

     The second movement has a fragmentary opening, without the broad sweep that would later become common in Bruckner's slow movements, but the lovely wind writing and the playing off of violin eighths against viola sixteenths provide hints of what would later emerge – and these elements are effective on their own. The brass entries do seem somewhat intrusive here, and the movement as a whole comes across as a collection of lovely parts although it does not, in totality, hang together especially well. In fact, structurally it is ambiguous, containing elements of sonata form and others of ternary form. Bruckner here seems to be straining toward a new expressive model while staying within the confines of the symphonic structure of his time. Poschner keeps the movement pace rather quick for an Adagio, especially a Bruckner Adagio, but he still brings forth the especially lovely aspects of the writing for strings.

     The third movement is simply marked Schnell, and Poschner makes it very fast indeed: that descriptive word is often downplayed, if not ignored, by Bruckner conductors, but Poschner takes it very much to heart. The rhythmic emphasis of this Scherzo is already quite "Brucknerian," emphatic and strongly accented: indeed, Bruckner never wrote a disappointing Scherzo. The Trio contrasts strongly and has especially beautiful writing for the woodwinds. Poschner makes it considerably slower than the Scherzo, and as a result the movement as a whole gains expansiveness. The resumption of the Scherzo material comes as a genuine surprise, and the coda is quite forceful.

     In the finale, the strong opening fanfare gives the movement intensity at the start, but it soon becomes softer and gentler. Poschner nicely captures the movement's contrasts between drama and lyricism, and the playing of the woodwinds and brass is particularly strong. Although abrupt and unexpected pauses heighten the contrasting elements of the structure, Poschner manages to keep the movement from becoming disjointed by preserving the differing rhythmic impetus of its sections. There are bucolic intervals that are almost Schubertian, mixed with marchlike material and strong rhythms – including additional references to the fanfare-like opening. Again and again there is a sense of headlong motion that soon turns into something slower and gentler when it does not stop altogether. In truth, this is a difficult movement to present cohesively, but Poschner handles it well – the numerous timpani emphases are especially effective – and at the very end, he builds the symphony to a bright and rousing conclusion in an insistent C major. This is a highly convincing performance of a symphony that places Bruckner firmly – but not too firmly – within the context of other Romantic composers of large-scale works. More than the 1891 version of Symphony No. 1, the 1868 one gives a sense both of what Bruckner learned from other composers of his time and what he was determined to set forth in his own way and on his own terms.

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