The Ebrach Summer of Music, Bruckner Festival is an extraordinary event. Ebrach is a small town, with a couple of shops, a café, an inn and a hotel, a disused railway line, a mere 1,000 occupants - and a gigantic Abbey attached to a monastery that was closed in 1803 and whose buildings now serve as a prison! At weekends, as you gather outside the Abbey before the forthcoming concert, the disconsolate relatives of the incarcerated pass amongst you to the prison door. As befits a prison, it is in ‘the middle of nowhere’, in Upper Franconia, the northernmost region of Bavaria, (an area that boasts the world’s highest density of breweries per capita, according to Wikipedia), in the Steigerwald forest between Würzburg and Bamberg. There are fine opportunities for walking in the forest on well-marked tracks, meditating on the music you heard the previous evening, or preparing yourself for the concert to come.

Erbrach Abbey © Stefan Schmäling
Erbrach Abbey
© Stefan Schmäling

The miracle is that to such an out-of-the-way place so many hundreds of people, enough to fill the vast Abbey and more than double the local population, make their way for a concert in which the only work on the programme is Bruckner’s 1st Symphony - hardly a crowd-puller in regular concert halls - and then the next night for the 2nd symphony, and again for the 3rd. All credit goes to locally-born conductor, Gerd Schaller, and his team at the Ebracher Musiksommer and the orchestra, Philharmonie Festiva, for taking this Bruckner Festival to the level of quality and popularity that it has achieved. The event is unique and the atmosphere quite splendid.

A little group of Brucknerians from the English-speaking world attended this event. Professor William Carragan has developed a close relationship with conductor Gerd Schaller, and it was Carragan’s editions of Bruckner symphonies that were performed. Inez Haettenschwiller and John Berky, of www.abruckner.com, also came from the USA to be there, and a couple of us, Bruckner Journal readers, came from the UK. We met with others from a variety of nations, and the friendly international sociability amongst people united by their appreciation of the music of Anton Bruckner was a thing to be savoured.

The Philharmonie Festiva is made up of musicians from the Munich Bach Soloists augmented by musicians from the Munich Philharmonic and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. They are as accomplished as any of the major European orchestras, and they include some especially fine soloists. In Ebrach Abbey they and their conductor have to cope with a reverberant acoustic - five to six seconds reverberation time - and it says much for their responsiveness that they were able to present the music, as it were, ‘through’ the acoustic, at times even taking advantage of it. Prof. William Carragan, in a speech of gratitude to the post-festival reception at the Bürgermeister’s invitation, spoke movingly of Bruckner’s prayerful pauses being carried over by echoing angels in the heights of the Abbey, and indeed that’s how it sounded.

Hearing these three symphonies on consecutive evenings made nonsense of the silly claim that Bruckner wrote the same symphony nine times - there was not even a half-truth left to support of such a statement. Indeed, it was astounding how different they were. Schaller’s way with this music is never one that seems to distort the performance by the imposition of some extraneous ideology, but rather to let the music and the players speak with a natural and unforced eloquence. The first symphony thereby had a gravity of utterance it is rarely allowed: it seemed like a stormy, characteristically C minor-ish work of some severity. The repeated trumpet calls in the Adagio, rising stepwise, ominously increasing the tension, (from bar 101), gave further expression to something unsettled and disturbing that seemed to have been working beneath the surface since the opening of the symphony. The Scherzo’s stamping-swinging rhythm, conjured up to great effect by Maestro Schaller, provoked a short cadential response by the oboe, clarinets and bassoons (bar 15), crescendo-diminuendo, and this brief phrase was so beautifully played that one’s heart stopped for a moment within the maelstrom of the wild dance. The Finale burst in brazenly, as it should, and was full of business, to intriguing and powerful effect, moving purposefully toward the C major coda, vigorous and triumphant.

A major revelation from Gerd Schaller’s approach to these works was seen in the effectiveness of the Finales of each of the symphonies. Bruckner’s way of dealing with the ‘Finale problem’ has often excited criticism, and the formal processes of the development can seem opaque and tiresome in performance. But Maestro Schaller conducted these movements with total confidence and they spun out their magic before us with unusual coherence. He didn’t try to moderate the strange dramatic contrasts and meanderings; rather, he let them run their course unquestioned and took delight in them - no attempt at an embarrassed rush-through or excessive sensationalism, they were played with absolute conviction in the validity of the score. There was great pleasure to be had here in the admiration of the fertility of Bruckner’s imagination as he found his way from the opening minor key propositions of the first movements towards glorious and joyful conclusions of the Finales.

The second symphony is also a C minor symphony - but it could not be more different from its numerical predecessor. From the moment the cellos spelt out the opening theme with warmth and generosity, the embrace of a pastoral lyricism suffused the whole symphony. In the 1872 version, ed. Carragan, Bruckner’s first idea of having the Scherzo second is followed and it came stamping in very effectively after the first movement had gone stamping out. The violas’ theme in the trio floated as though played by angels. During the stormy coda added to the Scherzo repeat (without the internal repeats that had been observed first time round) a member of the audience was taken ill, so there was an extended gap between movements whilst paramedics attended. Unfortunate for the sufferer, but for us it allowed time for a beautiful peace to descend into which the heartfelt strains of the Adagio stole - it was a heavenly dream throughout, brought to a visionary close with exemplary solo horn playing echoing through the Abbey. The finale was a joy throughout - especially the woodwind interjections and the heart-rending descending chorale for pianissimo trumpet and trombones that ushers in the first wave of the coda, whereupon the symphony closed excitingly in life-affirming warmth and vitality.

The third symphony was played in a version edited by Prof. Carragan which dated from 1874. It is formally the same as the 1873 version, but includes many changes in orchestration and imitative contrapuntal additions, especially in the first movement. Much of this requires a score and greater familiarity with the music than I have to be particularly noticeable, but certainly the whole sounded somewhat richer in its orchestral palette than the performances of the 1873 version I have heard previously. If the First Symphony performance was characterised by a gritty severity, and the Second by pastoral lyricism, this Third had nobility and grandeur, but also an engagement with thoroughly human issues of aspiration and anxiety, and a thoroughly human physicality - the dances of the scherzo and trio, and the finale’s polka, especially well presented here.

There was very spacious playing in the first movement - though not as slow as Georg Tintner’s famous Naxos recording of 1873 version - but Schaller kept a good hold on the form so that structural cohesion was never lost. In all the performances his interaction with the reverberant acoustic was particularly effective, and never more so than in this symphony where immense tuttis fall suddenly silent, and the length of the pause and the way the music resumes must be done sympathetically with the still ringing acoustic. The Adagio was lovingly moulded, with the second theme group which Bruckner regarded as a reminiscence of his mother particularly tender. The climax, with the Tannhäuser-like treatment of an alleged quotation from Lohengrin (‘Gesegnet sollst du schreiten’, Act II, scene 4, see preface to the score for 1877 version, ed. Nowak), was magisterially paced, and the pianissimo descending chords reminiscent of the ‘Magic Sleep’ motive from Die Walküre that bring the movement to its end, rapt and prayerful. A brief thumping Scherzo led to the wild Finale which in the abbreviated later versions can sound just too brassy for its own good, in this early incarnation the longer second and third theme groups give more space and variety to the great benefit of the overall structure. Once again, Schaller’s interpretation made no apologies for the variety and fertility of Bruckner’s imagination, but gloried in the convoluted path that Bruckner navigates to reach the summit of this particular mountain - the D major statement of the trumpet theme that had so impressed Wagner.

It was a triumphant end to three days of glorious music-making, and vindication of the sheer courage required to risk three days of ‘early’ Bruckner in a small village in an Upper Franconian forest. Congratulations to Maestro Gerd Schaller, the Philharmonie Festiva, and the citizens of Ebrach who made it happen - and keep your eyes open for news of next year's Bruckner in Ebrach!