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Using a Pandemic Break to Tackle Bruckner

by YAR

When the pandemic upended its plans to tour European cathedrals playing symphonies by Anton Bruckner, the Vienna Philharmonic hit the reset button.

With more time than ever at home, the orchestra immersed itself in recording the works under the conductor Christian Thielemann, exploring different versions of the scores and digging into the composer’s history with the philharmonic.

Symphony No. 3, No. 4 and No. 8 have already been released on the label Sony Classical. A full symphonic cycle will be rolled out both on audio and on DVD, by the classical music production company Unitel, in time for the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2024.

The orchestra’s general manager, Michael Bladerer, said the project allowed the musicians not just “to maintain also but improve their form” during months of lockdown when live concerts were prohibited but the orchestra was allowed to rehearse and record.

“The conditions were optimal,” Mr. Bladerer said. “We could concentrate on the recordings, doing a three-hour sitting every day and working calmly.”

After listening to a playback of the First Symphony, Daniel Froschauer, the philharmonic’s chairman, concluded that “the quality is simply the best, given that we had the time. The musicians were all well rested. It was the one positive experience during corona.”

For the first time, thanks to periods of curtailed travel during the pandemic, the orchestra is performing not only the nine symphonies but also the Symphony in D minor — written between the first and second but never assigned an opus number — and the “Study” Symphony, which is sometimes known as No. 00.

Mr. Bladerer, who happens to be a direct descendant of Bruckner through his great-grandmother, called it a “highly interesting” process to learn more about the composer’s origins through this “Nullte” or “Nullified” Symphony: “One hears a bit of [Wagner’s] ‘Lohengrin,’ Schumann, Weber,” he said. “But it is totally Bruckner.”

Mr. Froschauer added that “the first day of recording was incredible”: “We were playing a work that the conductor had never led — that our orchestra had never played — by a composer named Anton Bruckner. And nevertheless I have to say that we grew together quickly.”

According to Mr. Bladerer, the composer withdrew Symphony No. 00 from his catalog only after the German conductor and composer Felix Otto Dessoff, who worked with the philharmonic, called it “a symphony without a main theme.”

In the case of the Second Symphony, Bruckner wanted to dedicate it to the Vienna Philharmonic. But the orchestra never even responded.

“That offers a view into how one treated Bruckner at the time,” Mr. Froschauer said. “One didn’t take him seriously in Viennese [high] society,” Mr. Bladerer added. “He spoke a heavy upper Austrian dialect and moved clumsily in these circles.”

The Third Symphony, dedicated to Wagner, also has a problematic history: The philharmonic rejected the work three times. At the premiere of a revised version, in 1877, audience members left the Musikverein during the finale. And the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, once a supporter of Bruckner, wrote a scathing review.

For the recently released recording, Mr. Thielemann chose to conduct this version (the second of three). Mr. Bladerer said that while the first edition has very long quotes from Wagner’s music, the last contains such substantial cuts that they affect the overall form.

Mr. Bladerer summed up the power of Bruckner by quoting the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who likened the composer to “a rock who fell on earth from the moon.”

In other words, Mr. Bladerer explained, “after hearing a couple of measures, one knows that it’s Bruckner.”

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