Bruckner turned Goth

Although known primarily for his uplifting symphonic narratives, in his day the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner was also celebrated as a brilliant organ improvisor. These two aspects of his art are neatly brought together by the conductor-scholar-organist Gerd Schaller whose recordings of the complete symphonies for the Hänssler Profil label feature familiar scores in rarely heard – and therefore textually revealing – editions. Now Schaller has ventured onto a brand new path, transcribing the often terrifying Ninth Symphony for organ and playing it himself on the handsome Eisenbarth organ of the former Cistercian Abbey Church of Ebrach (2cds, PH21010, available via Select Music & Video Distribution). The upshot of this enterprising exercise is surprising in that rather play to the ‘cathedral in sound’ cliché that is so often applied to the symphonies, Schaller brings to the music a rawness, depth and austere intimacy that takes us to a moonlit, wooded terrain where mystery reigns alongside feelings of awe.

Try the deathly clanging of high-flown bells evoked at around at 14:46 into the first movement or, in the scherzo (which shimmers and roars rather than stamps), a dense cacophony approximating angry chatter. The third movement climbs from a simple affirmation of faith near the start (the ‘gates of Heaven’ episode at 1:56) to the sombre melody that restfully takes over soon afterwards. The movement’s clinching climax explodes on a blooded bed of dissonance (that builds from 18:50 – and thunders mercilessly from 19:59), here sounding as if ringing from the bowels of hell – there’s no escaping the pitch-black Gothic images that between them Bruckner and Schaller bring to mind.

But that’s just the start of it. Beyond the third movement (don’t forget this symphony was left incomplete, the finale a jagged mass of disparate fragments) Schaller summons chorales, crushing chords and flames that lick this way and that. His coda achieves closure, after a fashion, but the real power is not in how the tale ends but in the questions that follow on from it. We’ve already had performing versions of the Ninth from (among others) Rattle and Harnoncourt but maybe Schaller’s employment of a totally new sound medium allows us to approach it as a separate experience, one that’s divorced from what we already know.  It won’t replace the Ninths you own, but it will likely haunt them forever.

5 thoughts on “Bruckner turned Goth

  1. Many thanks Sarah. Good to hear from you. Me too with Bruckner – the first symphony to make a really big impression was the Eighth (under van Beinum). Schaller’s organ version of the Ninth is fascinating, quite off the wall in many respects but really imaginative. Do keep well. Best. Rob

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    1. Sarah Moyse

      For me it was the seventh – I sang in the Swansea Philharmonic Choir and we ‘did’ the Great F Minor(?) Mass in about 1974 (?) and I heard the 7th symphony in the Brangwyn Hall at about the same time – all the same music in both! (I remember I was reading Bleak House in the interval) and I went out and bought it the next day on a DG vinyl that I still have somewhere. Thanks for the good wishes, I hope your health is also flourishing! Sarah

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  2. Thanks Sarah. Yes the Seventh is another wonderful work. Was it the F minor Mass or the Te Deum, which closes to an extended quotation from the Symphony’s Adagio (ie, for “non confundar in aeternum”)? I’m sure there are similarities with the Mass too. Would it have been Eugen Jochum’s wonderful Munich recording (DG) that you had? That’s about the best there is. My first was conducted by Bruno Walter (New York), much older and not nearly as compelling. Trying to keep well. Warmest wishes. Rob

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    1. Sarah Moyse

      It was the F Minor Mass (the Third, Great mass), and singing it in rehearsal for months, the symphony felt it was quoting from it throughout – they were written at the same time – I have the Barenboim recording on the Mass from that time – I can still sing great chunks of it from memory! And yes, it was the Jochum – and soon after I bought the boxed set of the whole lot – lacking only the unnumbered one (or ones). Since then I’ve had the complete Karajan, and Celebidache – on your recommendation (do you remember the fuss over the pronunciation!). Robert Simpson was the great enthusiast for Bruckner in those days and wrote a wonderful book on Bruckner – I saw him talk in Stoke on Trent once, on another of his hobby horses – but I can’t now remember what it was! Do look after yourself, I hope you are keeping warm! Best wishes, Sarah

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