When you begin to get to know the symphonies of Anton Bruckner it’s not long before you come up against “the Bruckner problem”: the fact that there are multiple versions of many of the works, some of which originate from the composer himself who went through periods of revision-mania, while others are the results of collaborations with his supporters, and some were done without the composer’s involvement at all – and it has not always been clear to which of those categories some editions belong. The Ebrach “Summer of Music” audience are no strangers to performances of rarely-heard editions of Bruckner, but the version of the Eighth that they heard at this concert is really in a category of its own.

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

Some time between his own two versions of the symphony, written in 1887 and 1890, Bruckner produced a version of the Adagio alone that has been brought to light and published in 2004. It is a wonderful work and needs to be played, but the question arises with which versions of the surrounding movements it should be performed. This problem led Prof. William Carragan to look at the manuscripts and chart the changes that Bruckner had made to them during 1888, the time at which it seems most likely this so-called ‘intermediate’ Adagio was made. The resulting work corresponds to no complete version of the symphony produced by Bruckner, but is, as its editor writes in the programme, experimental, offering “a fascinating glimpse into Bruckner’s work-in-progress – the search of the eternal reviser for the most expressive realisation of his exalted ideas and melodic inspiration.”

Nevertheless, if you were familiar with the first version of 1887, there would have been only a few major discrepancies to alarm you in movements 1, 2 and 4; it is primarily in the Adagio that you find yourself suddenly in unfamiliar territory – at the heart of which is an extraordinary passage in which the final build-up to the climax is interrupted by a passage for four unaccompanied horns, on this occasion magnificently played by the hornists in Ebrach Abbey. Like many large churches, there is considerable reverberation, and it was stunning to hear the horns echoing around the walls, and it made you wonder why Bruckner ever rejected it.

But if, like most concertgoers, you were only familiar with Bruckner’s final version of 1890, there would have been much to surprise you in the first movement – some passages more wildly expressive, others less dramatic and monumental, but most of all, at the moment you expect the movement to finish with quiet, exhausted repetitions of a three-note falling figure on second violins and violas, suddenly there is an eruption, a triple forte tutti storms towards a blazing, brassy C major close, pre-empting the symphony’s finale coda which is still more than an hour away. This was magnificently handled by Maestro Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva – not for one moment did knowledge of the later version undermine the seeming inevitability of this finish, the ppp violin and viola repetitions, far from dying away, had the tension of an anxious repressed energy, demanding a release that was duly delivered.

The Scherzo is roughly similar in all versions – though this version had some spine-tingling little horn solos – but the Trio, although it has the same thematic origins, is a much lighter, pastoral meditation than its successor. It was played with particularly affecting charm and lilt by the Philharmonie Festiva. The Adagio, in whatever version, is one of Bruckner’s greatest achievements and was performed this evening with deep intensity. Especially moving were the moments of transition between its alternating themes – whether it be the solo horn that introduces the heart-melting second subject, or the hushed sustained strings that herald the return to the main theme for its complex climb to the climax. The whole movement was wonderfully beautiful, the orchestral balance in the long build-ups and mighty peaks skilfully handled, making the best of the resounding acoustic and shaping the movement to perfection.

Particularly impressive was Maestro Schaller’s grip on the form of this vast work, and it was displayed to great effect in the long Finale, which came over very strongly, welding the violent energy, celestial revelation and towering monumentality into a coherent structure. The orchestral attack was stronger here than had been achieved at times in the earlier movements. It is intriguing to hear how small changes make such a difference: there is a passage of dotted quavers on trumpets and drums that in this version is pp throughout – it sounds like a very distant excitement – and then suddenly it is displaced by Bruckner’s superimposition of all his main themes in glorious C major to finish the work, thereby sounding as though the music has in an instant encompassed the world from the far horizon to the overwhelming immediacy of the symphony’s closing triumph. In the later version this quiet rhythmic passage becomes a long crescendo and thereby replaces the perspective of vast space with a dynamic more concerned with the trajectory to victory. Having presented the heaven-storming overlay of themes, the symphony seems suddenly to cease, without the coup de grace of that unison three-note falling figure that closes the later version with such finality: it is as though the music has migrated to somewhere beyond the horizon where it carries on still. Accordingly there was long silence before audience broke into fulsome applause.

The Philharmonie Festiva is an orchestra that was brought into being by Gerd Schaller in 2008, with a kernel of players from the Munich Bach Soloists and several other of Munich’s top orchestras. Their programming is adventurous: they have recorded Goldmark’s opera Merlin, and last week gave a very well received performance of Suppé’s Requiem. They have performed and recorded six Bruckner symphonies to much acclaim, and tonight’s performance of the Eighth cannot but add to their increasing reputation, and that of the Ebracher Musiksommer festival, for music-making of a very high standard and for giving their audience the wonderful opportunity to hear large-scale works that are otherwise rarely, if ever, performed.