Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Bruckner Symphony No. 8. Kitzler Dem Andenken Anton Bruckners. Schaller Philharmonie Festiva

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 8 (1888 variant, ed. Carragan). KITZLER Dem Andenken Anton Bruckners (orch. Schaller)
Gerd Schaller, cond; Philharmonie Festiva
PROFIL 13027 (2 CDs: 99:29) Live: Abteikirche Ebrach 7/2012

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It’s not often that music editors get the chance to be creative, but with this 1888 “variant” of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, William Carragan has taken the opportunity to reimagine a version that never was. He has good historical reasons for doing so however, and the portmanteau edition that he has created tells us much about the psychology behind Bruckner’s revision process.
Although multiple versions and editions of this symphony exist, they can by whittled down to two for historical purposes: the original 1887 score, that found little favor with Joseph Schalk or Hermann Levi, and the 1890 revision, created on the basis of their suggestions and performed at the work’s premiere. But much evidence survives about how these changes gradually developed over the intervening three years. The Austrian National Library contains manuscripts of three of the movements, in the 1887 form but with additions and amendments penciled in in Bruckner’s own hand. The library also holds a fair copy of the Adagio, in the hand of an unnamed copyist, that is clearly transitional between the two versions. In 2004, Dermot Gault and Takanobu Kawasaki produced a fully edited version of this Adagio. Carragan has taken this as a starting point for imagining how a complete version of the score may have looked like in 1888, based on the penciled annotations in the other movements.
This “variant” remains closer to the 1887 version than the 1890. The first movement still has a loud conclusion, and most of its themes have different cadential formulas to those we are used to hearing today. But there are a number of interpolated passages, some of which were retained in 1890 and some were not. The orchestration of the Adagio seems heavier than in either version, especially in the brass writing, and the harmonic progressions in the outer movements include some quite radical shifts that don’t fit easily into any other conception of the work. The development section of the first movement is particularly interesting. Here, Bruckner is moving from the logical and bold certainties of his original conception to a more psychologically nuanced discourse. But he hasn’t yet worked out how to square that more confessional style with the otherwise grandiose setting, and some of the added sections have a sense of fragility and uncertainty completely out of character with the composer’s mature style.
Gerd Schaller is something of a devotee of William Carragan’s Bruckner, and this release is the latest in what is shaping up to be a complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies in early or transitional versions in Carragan editions. His Philharmonia Festiva is an impressive band, a part-time ensemble made up of players from Munich’s world-class orchestras. They don’t disappoint here, with playing that is clear, driven, and committed. However, Schaller’s approach isn’t to my taste. He emphasizes clarity over grandeur at every turn, often with the result that the music is deprived of its poetry and flow. In the Adagio, for example, the lines are all expressively phrased, if within a fairly confined spectrum of rubato. But there is no daylight between each of the phrases, and the large-scale tempo relationships are rigorous to a fault. The resulting reading is seriously lacking in poise. I suspect that Schaller’s rationale is that he wants to make a documentary recording of this new “variant” and that he doesn’t want his own interpretation to get in the way. That’s laudable up to a point, but it significantly reduces musical and emotional engagement that the recording offers.
That said, the conductor is to be praised to the skies for the filler he has found to round out the program. Dem Andenken Anton Bruckners is one of the very few pieces written after Bruckner’s death that is based on a conscious effort to emulate his style. The work’s history is complex but fascinating. The liner note tells us that “This work is unusual in that it seems to have been written by two composers who bore the same name.” The composers, both called Otto Kitzler, were father and son. Kitzler Snr. taught Bruckner orchestration and composition in the early 1860s, shortly after the latter’s period of study with Simon Sechter. Almost nothing at all is known about Kitzler Jnr., although the surviving piano duet score of this work suggests that it was he, rather than his father, who made the most significant contribution to it, despite there being no evidence that he was even a composer. But what a fine work it is! This memorial to Bruckner, which was first performed in 1905, takes the form of a pastiche of one of its subject’s great Adagios. Bruckner’s harmonic and contrapuntal styles are alluded to, and the scale and solemnity of the music are of apiece with his late symphonies. It doesn’t all work, however, and the main theme in particular is disappointingly trite. But it’s a major discovery, and well worth hearing. Another disappointment is that the original orchestration is not used. Schaller was only able to consult a published piano duet reduction and has orchestrated the work himself. The liner note says that the original orchestra parts were retained by the family and are now considered lost, raising the probably tenuous hope that they might one day reappear. In the mean time, Schaller’s version will have to do. As with his conducting of the Bruckner, Schaller is frustratingly modest in his ambitions here. Again, he seems paranoid about allowing his own personality to intrude into an exercise in historical reconstruction. So the orchestration is flat and unchanging throughout, worthy and competent, but unimaginative. This is all the more frustrating given the Kitzler Snr. actually taught Bruckner orchestration, and that the original orchestration of the work was clearly an integral part of its conception.
Still, better this than not hearing the music at all. Gerd Schaller clearly has a very definite idea about his role in the promotion of obscure works, and of obscure versions of well-known works. His instincts as a historian and musicologist serve him well when ferreting through the archives and when collaborating with editors. But when he gets on the podium he needs to behave more like a musician and interpret the music. Only then will it return to life.

 This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 37:3.

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