bruckner-symphony schaller organ profil

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major (arranged for organ by Gerd Schaller)
Gerd Schaller (organ)
rec. 2022, former Cistercian Abbey, Ebrach, Franconia, Germany
World premiere recording
Profil Hänssler PH23014 [73]

This is Bruckner specialist conductor and organist Gerd Schaller’s second arrangement of a Bruckner symphony for organ; the first was of the Ninth (review). In addition to containing some pleasing colour photographs of the organist and the Eisenbarth organ of the abbey, and details of the disposition of the organ, the CD booklet contains the transcript of a conversation in German with an English translation between him and music writer Dr Rainer Aschemeier explaining the rationale behind his choice of the Fifth for transcription for organ, particularly with regard to the prevalence of counterpoint, typified by the fugue of the finale. He is at pains to emphasise that he is not attempting to make the organ rival an orchestra but aiming to create a work specifically for the organ – an organ symphony, not a symphony transposed note for note for an organ, as it were, because features Bruckner frequently used such as string tremolos do not work on that instrument. He has found both the acoustic of the Ebrach Abbey church and the instrument itself to be especially well suited to Bruckner’s music, with its combination of “a Baroque transposition alongside a Romantic opulence of symphonic sound” and stresses that his “version for organ…brings out the work’s modernity even more clearly.”

Unusually for what is rather niche repertoire, direct comparison may be made with a transcription of the same symphony made, played and recorded by organist Matthew Giesen in St Florian and released on the Gramola label (review). Thus, this is a “world premiere recording” not of an organ arrangement of the symphony but specifically of Gerd Schaller’s version. Giesen’s is much more expansive all round, as these timings reveal:

 First mvtAdagioScherzoFinaleTotal

I describe Giesen’s timings as “stately, even leisurely” but there is nothing remarkable about Schaller’s choice of tempi here, either in comparison with his own recording a decade ago with the Philharmonie Festiva in the same venue, or anyone else’s; in fact, it is slightly on the faster side compared with my favourite orchestral versions, but even Giesen is not as slow as Ballot’s interesting, if idiosyncratic account of the orchestral symphony proper at 89:29 (review). Which you prefer is very much a matter of personal taste; my own is for Schaller’s more propulsive manner but I appreciate the mighty dignity of Giesen’s treatment of the music. Smaller points, but both the lack of mechanical noise and the rather more detailed, yet still expansive acoustic of the Ebrach organ sway me towards a preference for Schaller. More importantly, I am persuaded by his omission of any replication of tremolo effects; Giesen’s occasional pulsing and “trilling” (not really, but you get my drift) of sustained notes can emerge as a little clumsy and would have best been left unattempted. However, I do like Giesen’s more frequent use of the “bubbling”, “fluty” stop (excuse me, I am no organist and do not know which one produces that lovely sound but they are all in the booklet and no doubt a professional could tell me). Giesen is more varied in his use colours, Schaller more integrated and cohesive, and working in a more congenial acoustic.

Having said that, I marginally favour Giesen’s steadier pace for the Adagio, even if Schaller finds more tension in key moments. Giesen applies a “slow burn”; Schaller is more dramatic. There is a compelling grandeur to the last three minutes of Giesen’s account but Schaller’s combination of stops to vary the sonic textures and a more dynamic manner are more seductive. The same is true of the Scherzo, but here the movement emerges as a little turgid under Giesen’s hands and has considerably more vivacity with Schaller. His Trio, in particular, is sprightlier, without sacrificing its slightly macabre undertone; with Giesen, it is distinctly spooky – which I still like, I might add, but on balance I think Schaller better differentiates the sections.

The quirky opening to the finale responds well to the voices chosen by both organists. Once again, however, Schaller generates greater interest and excitement with both his choice of stops and affect. The final three or four minutes (respectively for Schaller and Giesen, owing to their disparate pacing) are crucial, and while I like the massive sonority of Giesen’s statelier rendering, Schaller really scores with the brazen defiance of his triumphant conclusion.

To sum up, a more grateful acoustic. a more varied sonic palette and a more propulsive manner all incline me to prefer Gerd Schaller’s skilful arrangement over Giesen’s previous arrangement.

Ralph Moore

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