The Abbey at Ebrach in Germany has all the advantages and disadvantages one might expect of a large ecclesiastical building as a venue for a Bruckner performance and, as far the sound goes, they are summed up in one word: reverberation. Bavarian Radio were there with 50 microphones for this performance of the Fifth Symphony, presumably necessary to catch the instrumental sound before its decay is submerged in the echo, but also to catch the wonderful echo itself. Not surprisingly the horns (six of them) had a warm glow to them, but also with the entry of the first movement’s first theme – a rather jaunty tune to be repeated many times, in canon, imitation, upside down as well, and to reappear in the finale as well – the violas and cellos sounded gloriously rich and deep-toned. The sheer beauty of sound that the Philharmonie Festiva created for this performance was one of its major strengths.

Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva perform Bruckner's Eighth Symphony in Ebrach Abbey © Mile Cindric 2012
Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva perform Bruckner's Eighth Symphony in Ebrach Abbey
© Mile Cindric 2012

The core of the orchestra is the Munich Bach Soloists, who themselves include many players from the Munich Philharmonic, and other first-class players are recruited from all over Germany. All soloists were outstanding, but special mention needs to be made for the first clarinet, whose interjection of the finale fugue theme was fantastic – in all senses of the word. It’s a difficult judgement, how to inflect this strangely irreverent little theme that has the capacity to dismiss the quoted themes from earlier movements and then to power the first fugue and to combine itself with the big chorale theme in a massive double fugue. Bruckner is not generally noted for much humour in his music, but it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t have a smile upon his face as he penned this little motive in full knowledge of the great purpose to which it would later be put, and the clarinettist imbued it with such character that it acquired an extra measure of portentousness, a sort of “Heads up, folks! Something really special is on the way!”

It was all the more startling in the context of Maestro Gerd Schaller’s noble and humane reading of the work. The Bruckner cycle that he and the orchestra have been working through is now almost complete – they'll be performing the 6th symphony in September, and the Symphony in D minor (“Die Nullte”) next year – and those familiar with the recordings will know not to expect anything flashy or superficial. More than ever I was aware of blessed moderation of Schaller’s approach: he might often choose to do unusual editions of the works, but he eschews the wilder excesses by which some conductors choose to put their own mark on Bruckner’s canvass. Sometimes in one or two of the earlier performances I have felt things were perhaps a little too moderate, that there was a lack of attack in Bruckner’s more abrupt dramatic fortissimos – but not on this occasion. The Fifth Symphony sounded before us like the “gigantic masterpiece” (Robert Simpson) that it is, and its powerful accumulative structure was presented as granitic and ornate, and as searingly beautiful as the mighty Abbey in which it was performed.

Often what remains in the memory are the big themes, and indeed these were always given full measure, but I was struck this time by how beautiful the second and third themes of the first movement were, partly due to the quality of string playing in the former and the sonorous wind band in the opening measures of the latter. Similarly the dancing lyricism of the second theme of the finale was elevated by its beautiful rendition to an element worthy of the trenchant fugues and chorales that provide the main fabric of the movement. Given also the attractive lilt given to the somewhat hefty Scherzo themes, the symphony came over brimful of melody, bristling with good tunes – not always the first thing you’d think of with Bruckner’s Fifth.

What made the Adagio so moving was the conductor’s strong grip on its structure, dynamics and orchestral balance, so that one never wearied of the series of descending sequences and falling sevenths so prevalent in later passages of the movement – the variety of colour and careful gradation of dynamics kept one spellbound. (Schaller used the rarely played variant of the score that has the flute and clarinet play high and low As in the last bar.)

But ultimately the outstanding achievement of this symphony (and of this performance) came with the finale’s contrapuntal intricacy, its extended but sure-footed structure, its synthesis of the disparate elements presented from the symphony’s earliest moments, its mounting energy and cumulative power that ultimately blazes forth in the consummation of a massive brass chorale – all this shining through the Philharmonie Festiva’s performance. And here Gerd Schaller allowed himself a moment of theatre, arms held long aloft as the music ceased and we sat hardly daring to breathe lest the magic fade – and finally he relaxed and the applause filled the vast Gothic reaches of the Abbey. It’s moments such as this that can't be captured on radio or CD – you have to be there!