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.