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Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

String Quintet & String Quartet

Fitzwilliam String Quartet, James Boyd (viola) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: November 2011
St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: October 2015
Total duration: 76 minutes 33 seconds

Cover artwork: Pinkscape by Lee Campbell (b1951)
Bridgeman Art Library, London

This is the first recording of Bruckner's great chamber works to use gut strings and original instruments at the correct pitch. Thus achieving the famous ‘Bruckner Sound', this album was greeted by The Bruckner Journal as featuring 'a flexible lyricism that has become a rare thing in Bruckner performance'.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'All Brucknerians will welcome this issue from Linn, which … unites all of Bruckner's significant chamber music in one superb recording' (MusicWeb International)» More

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Anton Bruckner is surely one of the most perplexing figures in nineteenth-century music. Liszt the Romantic Virtuoso, Chopin the Melancholy Consumptive, Wagner the Mammoth Ego: all were products of an era when the ‘personality’ was assuming increasingly larger-than-life proportions. Bruckner lived at this time as well, but was blessed with exactly the wrong character to lend credibility to any aspirations as a nineteenth-century ‘artist’. Yet in the present age of even more outsize personalities, impresarios paradoxically capitalize on the supposedly defective aspects of Bruckner’s make-up: his country origins, clumsiness, obsession with numbers, unquestioning faith. Such a quaint if contentious image may well have contributed at one time to Bruckner’s standing as one of the most popular composers (according to a survey of London concert programmes some years ago). But it takes no account of his exceptional intellect, originality and vision: qualities which the composer himself seemed at times unaware of, to judge by the debilitating loss of self-belief that plagued his last years. That may have been caused in part by the conductor Hermann Levi’s no doubt well-intentioned, but insensitive (and blinkered), criticism in 1887 of the first version of the Eighth Symphony. The result was a nervous crisis in which Bruckner entered a near manic period of revising, initially the Eighth, then the earlier symphonies as well. Precious time was lost that would have been better spent on the unfinished Ninth, whose finale he never finally organized into the vast monolith planned (though over the past 30 years or so devotees have attempted the feat with extraordinary success).

The consensus that Bruckner was a late developer as a composer is in part a misconception, one that may have arisen from the fact that in 1855 he chose to undertake a strict course of study in composition with the renowned harmony and counterpoint teacher Simon Sechter (with whom Schubert had also started lessons, right at the end of his life). For the 14 years before this step, Bruckner had held a number of teaching positions of variable distinction, the first of them (at Windhaag, in his native Upper Austria) involving pastoral care and even such menial duties such as spreading dung on the school fields. Nevertheless, those years saw the composition of a considerable amount of church music, including the stark and magnificent Requiem (1849) and the grand, festive Missa solemnis (1854). But one of Sechter’s strictures was that his pupils were required to cease all creative composition, and for the next six years Bruckner composed nothing of his own. Even after that, in 1861, he chose to continue his studies by taking lessons in form and orchestration with the Linz cellist and conductor Otto Kitzler.

In 1862–63 Bruckner produced for Kitzler a four-movement String Quartet in C minor, one of a number of study pieces he copied into a special exercise book (characteristically, in strict chronological order). Preparation for this would almost certainly have required a thorough examination of the quartets of his great predecessors, so it is not surprising that parts of the work sound as if they might have been by Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Mendelssohn or Schumann. Nevertheless, this virtually unknown piece proves to be a real gem, and as deserving of a place in the repertoire as many a less accomplished string quartet from the nineteenth century. By turns intensely dramatic, effortlessly lyrical and searingly passionate—characteristics that are offset by a jolly rustic scherzo in G major with a delicious Schubertian Ländler-like trio—the whole is held together through an impressively tight control of harmony and structure. That of course befits an exercise, but the work also has a deep expressiveness, notwithstanding the composer’s apparently flippant dismissal of it. However, a brief look at the score points up the piece’s original purpose as an exercise in sonata structures and string writing, since there are hardly any dynamic or other markings. So it was necessary for us to make a performing edition, as the Koeckert Quartet of Munich had before us in 1950–51. Some of their decisions we have necessarily rejected, in light of subsequent knowledge of performance practice in the 1860s. Nevertheless, we remain in their debt, and it was they who gave the quartet’s first ever public performance, on 15 February 1951, for RIAS Berlin.

Derivative the quartet may seem, yet the first significant example of the true Bruckner sound—the Mass No 1 in D minor (1864)—was less than two years away; and by 1868 (with the completion of the F minor Mass, No 3) he was fully established as a mature writer of choral music. His energies were now directed towards the problems of the symphony, and by the ‘mighty cyclopean fifth’ (to quote Robert Simpson) of 1876–78 he had achieved a mastery in that field as well, such that for the next nine years Bruckner’s self-confidence was at its zenith. It was at this point that he finally turned his attention to a 17-year-old request from Joseph Hellmesberger for a piece for his famous quartet to play: the result was the String Quintet in F major (significantly, all the symphonies of this period are also in major keys, as opposed to an otherwise exclusive concentration on the minor, usually C or D). It was Bruckner who insisted on the extra viola, with the result that the glowing sonorities he conjures so winningly from the symphony orchestra are miraculously captured here in miniature. This is done with an economy of scoring hardly typical of his contemporaries, let alone of one whose only other practical experience of chamber music was a student string quartet. Initially Hellmesberger was somewhat dismayed by the supposed difficulties of the quintet’s scherzo; Bruckner attempted to appease him by replacing it with something less demanding, which he completed some five months later. In the event, the original scherzo was retained, and the composer preserved the discarded movement as a separate entity entitled ‘Intermezzo’ (though this would not be published until 1913, 29 years after the quintet). The piece retains the original key of D minor, but a shadowy mysteriousness has given way to something rather more gemütlich—Mahlerian, almost.

Those familiar with Bruckner’s symphonies will be well aware of their almost dogged adherence to certain individually evolved formal conventions; most of these are also present in the quintet, though naturally on the less extended time scale suited to the medium. Nonetheless, the characteristically deliberate pace of the music, as dictated by the size of the themes and the unhurried harmonic movement, results in a composition longer than more familiar chamber works. That category does not, of course, include the late masterpieces of Beethoven and Schubert. If the history books place Bruckner in direct line of descent from Bach through Beethoven, it should be remembered that it was Schubert who (together with Wagner) wielded the greatest single influence on his fellow Austrian. Of course the ‘Eroica’ Symphony and first ‘Razumovsky’ quartet showed how to build large-scale sonata movements through the spreading apart of tonal poles and the consequent slowing down of harmony; yet the evidence of Bruckner’s music, in which expanded structure is blended with an overriding lyrical flow, suggests an even greater debt to Schubert (whose guiding spirit can already be sensed in the early C minor Quartet).

The first movement of the quintet is unique in Bruckner for being cast in triple time, and the steady pulse of the scherzo finds company only in Symphonies 6 and 8. But the slow movement belongs in every way to that great succession in the symphonies, from ethereal solemnity in the Fifth to agonizing beauty in the Ninth: this Adagio embraces a sublime tenderness and passion that alone guarantee the quintet’s place among the masterpieces of chamber music. If the finale seems in any way problematic, that will only be if we attempt to fit it into a conventional sonata form, which, like so many other Bruckner finales, it only superficially follows. Leading off in the G flat major of the Adagio (Bruckner purposefully reversed his usual ordering of the middle movements to bring about this effective harmonic link), the movement progresses through two highly expectant pedal points before serving up an earthy tune, in clearly punctuated four-bar Gesangsperiode, which seems to come straight from the outdoor life of Upper Austria (it is extraordinary, incidentally, how many of Bruckner’s finales contain at this point melodies that involve the expressive interval of a 6th). At the centre of this arch-like construction is a powerful fugato, which eventually unfolds into the ‘earthy’ tune again—cleverly demonstrating their joint thematic relationship through inversion, and the stretching of the original 6th to an octave. Finally, the opening pedal point returns, this time on the dominant of F, before ultimately dropping to the tonic in a massive perfect cadence fully justified by the scale of the rest of the work. This is the point towards which the whole movement has been directed, as only now is the home key fully established. Here, together with the perorations in the corresponding section of the first movement, is to be found the only instance where Bruckner shows that he is missing the orchestral brass. His next major composition was the Sixth Symphony, which parallels the quintet in many striking ways, not least in its intimate and genial temperament. Neither work is one of the composer’s most familiar, yet their combined emotional power is hardly outweighed by the tremendous edifices surrounding them.

Alan George © 2015

String quartets can be among the most insular of musical institutions. With a history extending back more than two centuries, the study and perfecting of this specialized area of ensemble-playing might justifiably be regarded as an art form in itself, with its own traditions, techniques, rules; not to mention, of course, a repertoire so vast as to be entirely self-sufficient. Such a heritage can all too easily give rise to quartet players with little interest in music outside their own literature, and even less in any current thinking on the presentation of that literature. Performance traditions of the established repertoire—particularly the Viennese classics—have grown up over generations; but the validity of such traditions has been called into question by the huge amount of research into earlier performing techniques. Nineteenth-century performers and teachers handed down their methods to us via their pupils and their pupils’ pupils; but the dangers of distortion that arise from this—‘Chinese whispers’—are obvious. It is only when we get well into the last century, with the advent of sound recording and the documentation of composers’ own interpretations, that we can really be sure how things were done or, at least, intended to be done.

Whatever one might think of the standard approach to the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, at least there are enough of them to enable every serious ensemble to get the feel of each composer’s language and personality. But as the daunting shadow of Beethoven interacted with the quest for ever greater sonorities to slow down the production of chamber music during the nineteenth century, we come across isolated masterpieces that relate only to themselves. It follows that any attempt at an idiomatic rendition of such works would benefit from exploring outside the repertoire itself: a wider knowledge of the composer’s output is surely a prerequisite. Who could expect to give a faithful account of Verdi’s quartet with no knowledge of Aida or Falstaff, or of Sibelius’s without fully absorbing the world of his Symphonies 3, 4 and 6? Perhaps more than any such works, Bruckner’s quintet will never reveal its true greatness via study of other quartets and quintets in isolation. Schubert’s C major Quintet might well provide invaluable experience of a time scale way beyond that of most other chamber works, as well as revealing influences which helped form Bruckner’s own musical style. Yet by 1879 he had produced a chamber composition that can only realistically be studied in the context of his own surrounding symphonies: the tremendous Fifth, and the more congenial Sixth and Seventh, which, in their less massive scale and heightened lyricism, come closest in temperament to the quintet (and indeed may even have been coloured by it).

So this was the Fitzwilliam’s starting point when we first tackled Bruckner’s quintet, over 40 years ago. For many, of course, the most striking aspect of the ‘Bruckner Sound’ is his magnificent exploitation of the brass; so it might seem inconceivable to try to reflect such a sonority without them, even if the conclusions of the outer movements betray a certain hankering. Yet it is extraordinary how sonority can be invoked by harmony (witness how many masterpieces seem to lose little of their inherent character in four-hand piano reductions). Naturally—as with so many composers who thought predominantly in orchestral terms—it is vital to look at the score of this quintet, comprehend the colours imagined and then realize them through a variety of string textures; and we sense this music to be as Brucknerian as any of the symphonies. But projecting that identification, however strongly felt, is another matter. An initial obstacle is the quintet’s technical difficulty—or rather, the awkwardness of much of the individual writing. The lines are often tricky to balance, simply because they repeatedly cross over each other, and they just do not lie readily under the fingers; but neither do a lot of Beethoven’s (or even Mozart’s), so by the same token it is up to the fingers to play Bruckner’s lines without apparent effort. Such a failing may perhaps be traced to Bruckner’s own relative lack of expertise as a string player (though he played second fiddle in a village band when he taught at Windhaag); but that would not explain his exceptional feel for the way string instruments sound and resonate with each other. His understanding of how to achieve a full, warm—sometimes massive—sonority by means of judicious spacing of parts, rather than by adding extra notes through excessive double-stopping, is equalled by only a handful of composers after Haydn.

The next consideration is tempo, hand-in-hand with which go the demands of pacing such a large-scale construction. It could be said that one of the first requirements when approaching a Bruckner score, whether as performer or listener, is patience. One has to submit oneself to the expanded time scale of this music. We live our lives now at so unhealthily hectic a pace that it seems almost unnatural to have to accept and adjust to a slower time scale; but music like this affords us the priceless opportunity of challenging the passing of time, and we should relish it. All devotees will know that the finest performances of Bruckner’s symphonies are those which allow the music ample space to evolve and breathe. That is not necessarily to say that tempi must be uniformly deliberate, since only the very greatest conductors have managed to preserve the necessary sense of direction and momentum by such means. It would be unwise to attempt to impose, for example, Karajan’s famous approach to the Eighth Symphony on to the quintet: not only because a chamber ensemble can hardly match the sustaining powers of a huge orchestra; but also because Bruckner himself underlines the difference by what he writes.

The first movement is the prime example, where he rejects his customary rhythmic or tremolando scene-setting for a long-breathed melody from the very outset. The lyrical element is further emphasized through the unique use of triple time. Indeed, it would be easy to begin the quintet as an Adagio, were it not for the cello’s subsequent version of the melody steering the music through a bass line in quavers to a chirpy motif in the violins: music which would sound ridiculous at anything other than an upbeat tempo giusto. Bruckner’s predilection for building a single movement out of the most unlikely variety of material (as in the finales of Symphonies 3 and 4), such that mighty brass chorales and peasant dances can live together quite harmoniously and unselfconsciously, is well known. The performer’s task is to find tempi that, while not necessarily adhering rigidly to the metronome, can suit each ingredient in turn. This often requires considerable discipline, even self-denial at times: it can be tempting to indulge in the beauty of the moment at the expense of the larger plan. Bruckner did try to help by indicating a number of tempo changes at key expressive moments; in practice these can often prove a hindrance, and to the extent that they are observed they must not be allowed to sound fussy.

An approach to the scherzo is not complete without an awareness that Bruckner developed a new breed of scherzo based on the slower of the two tempi in that of the Fifth Symphony; he was satisfied enough with the result to return to the new type in Symphonies 6 and 8. These three examples share a shadowy, almost ghostly quality that the quartet-plus-one might wish to exploit, in the awareness that Bruckner’s scherzos (the revision of that of the Fourth excepted) prefer to look to the darker hues of minor keys. For the trio, and for much of the finale, it is necessary to visualize the environment that had surrounded Bruckner in his native Upper Austria, before the move to Vienna: the open vistas of the landscape, the jollity (and drunkenness) of rustic life, the fun of village music-making, all faintly tinged with homesickness. As players we have to find a quality of sound that can capture these images, that might even be lazy and fat, yet must not appear contrived or slip into parody. The difficulty is aggravated in the finale by the need to keep all of this on a tight rein: for example, the Gesangsperioden can only work if they are played in fairly strict rhythm and unhurried tempo. And it is this movement that invariably causes the biggest headache, especially for those who pretend that it is cast in a traditional form. Once (aided by the finale of the Seventh) one has accepted the virtues of the Bogen (‘arch form’)—and one has seen it far enough ahead to understand why the quintet requires a coda of two extended pedal points to effect a gigantic concluding perfect cadence—then this extraordinarily original and diverse movement can crown the quintet as intended.

So where, specifically, have we turned for guidance in the quintet? First of all, earlier study of performance practice in late Brahms—aided by Robert Pascall’s writings on the topic—inevitably led us to reappraise our approach to Bruckner. While the two composers’ attitudes to symphonic writing took markedly different directions, it is obvious that certain common performing conventions must apply to music written at the same time and in the same city. Pascall reminds us that ‘bow strokes were much as now, although the art of portato bowing has been largely lost, and the use of off-string bowing was not as favoured then as it is today. The normal way of playing…until the present [twentieth] century was without vibrato…[which was] used primarily as an ornament, for accented notes, and for sustained notes in impassioned and lyrical melodies. And secondly, players of [Brahms’s] time would all have used portamento, the gliding ornament so tellingly described by Carl Flesch as “the emotional connexion of two notes”.’ He also notes that ‘…tempo modification was a recognised and established part of performance practice of the age, and that, provided always it is applied with discretion, it remains fully appropriate to the interpretation of [Brahms’s] music.’ Indeed, that had been the case for some time previously, to judge by similar remarks made on the subject by Beethoven, Liszt and Wagner, all of which lend weight to the argument.

So what about the ‘monumental’ approach to Bruckner’s supposedly granite-like structures? Leaving aside those symphonies to which this might apply (Nos 5, 8 and 9), we remember that the quintet can be seen to have initiated a triptych of masterpieces (with Symphonies 6 and 7) in which the monumentality achieved in the Fifth Symphony gives way to an ardent lyricism. In that context, it was extraordinarily instructive to hear, a few years ago, two performances of the Seventh by Kurt Masur. The great octogenarian seemed to provide a living testament to all Bruckner’s directions; yet, needless to say, there was no trace of any dry academic study, so naturally did the whole work evolve and unfold. From a barely audible tremolo, the glorious E major arpeggio at the opening emerged at a tempo so daringly slow that one would have feared for it had we not reached (almost unawares) something substantially more flowing after 50 bars, with the new oboe/clarinet theme. The opening section of the quintet lends itself equally naturally to this approach, and it is to be hoped that we have come somewhere near Masur’s inspiring example.

We also studied recorded performances by ensembles from an earlier era: notably the Amadeus and Vienna Philharmonia (led by Willi Boskovsky), but not forgetting the Koeckert (their credentials enhanced by their pioneering work on the C minor Quartet). But by far the most revelatory rendition was that by the Strub Quartet, dating from the 1940s. Max Strub himself must have gained invaluable experience under such great Bruckner conductors as Otto Klemperer from his time as leader of the Berlin Staatskapelle. As with Masur, many of Pascall’s observations are reflected in the Strub Quartet’s recording, notably with regard to tempo modification, bow strokes and the relative lack of vibrato. Interestingly, they appear to play the earliest version of the work: a number of textual differences can be heard, and it is striking that the middle movements are played in their original order, with the scherzo third. They are also faithful to the Adagio’s original designation ‘Andante quasi Allegretto’ (with the time signature alla breve, i.e. two beats to the bar; Masur was similarly flowing at the beginning of the Seventh’s Adagio). We have tried to take this on board ourselves, as also—to a degree—their daringly measured tempo for the greater part of the finale.

It is also more than likely that the Strub Quartet would have been playing on gut strings (maybe even a gut E on the violins, although that is less obviously discernible). As on our Linn recording of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, we use gut strings here. This time we sought out a set from Dan Larsen in Minnesota: his strings are hand-wound copies of the type of string that would have been in use in Vienna during the 1870s, and are much tougher and thicker than the ones we play on in Baroque and Classical music. To a significant degree, they dictate to the player what can and cannot be done with the bow: the sound has to be ‘coaxed’ from them, rather than forced. Also, the sheer thickness of the lower strings means that notes can feel as if they are not quite in their familiar places on the fingerboard, something that makes pure intonation in Bruckner’s most tortuous chromatic passages that much more challenging. These strings are capable of a huge sound, with unexpected warmth and depth. This is true even at a lower pitch (A = 441) than originally intended: Viennese pitch of the relevant time would have been much higher than that of today, so we attempted gradually to play higher and higher, eventually winding the strings up to A = 450. Ultimately, however, we had to admit defeat as intonation became too parlous for comfort. In fact accepted pitch in Vienna dropped soon afterwards, following a conference in 1886 that decreed a return to the French standard of A = 435, a level first introduced in 1862 (which of course was the time of the C minor Quartet). Nevertheless, it is our hope that we have managed to get somewhere near a sound-world that Bruckner himself might have recognized; and we do not forget his reported entreaties for ppp (in his a cappella motets) to be so soft as to be almost inaudible.

For our performances of the quintet we have always used the International Bruckner Society Edition, edited by Leopold Nowak and based on the original manuscript, in conjunction with the copy-text of the first edition (1884), which contains various amendments by the composer. Likewise the quartet, which was added to the complete edition in 1956.

Alan George © 2015

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