Sunday, September 20, 2015

F. Charles Adler Conducts Bruckner: The SPA and Unicorn Recordings

Mass No. 1 in D minor*
Overture in G minor
Symphony No. 1 in C minor
Symphony No. 3 in D minor
Symphony No. 6 in A major
Symphony No. 9 in D minor

Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by F. Charles Adler
(*) Sonja Draksler, alto
(*) Vienna Radio Chorus

Music and Arts CD 1283 (5 discs)

This 5 CD set from Music and Arts is a fascinating historical document – not least because F. Charles Adler was a very interesting figure. Born in London, but a teutophile at heart, Adler studied in Munich and worked with Gustav Mahler on the première of the Eighth Symphony. Director of the Düsseldorf Municipal Opera when the First World War broke out in 1914, he was interned as an enemy alien. After the war he remained in Germany until the rise of Hitler led him to emigrate to the U.S., where he settled near Saratoga Springs and established a music festival. In 1951, with businessman Norman Fox, he founded SPA records, originally devoted primarily to small-scale piano and instrumental works by contemporary composers and subsequently expanded to the orchestral repertoire, including Bruckner. Most of the SPA orchestral recordings were produced in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (operating under various pseudonyms after their contract with Philips in 1952). By 1955 SPA was broke and Adler started recording for two other labels, Unicorn and Composers Recordings Incorporated (CRI), before issuing a final recording for SPA – Bruckner’s D minor Mass in 1957, included here. Adler died two years later at the age of 70.

 Most of the recordings collected here by Music and Arts are from the SPA catalogue, although the recording of the First is from an LP issued by Unicorn and the Sixth is from a broadcast on the Austrian radio station ORF. The recordings have been prepared by Aaron Z. Snyder. Snyder worked from the original master tape for the First and from LP-to-digital transfers for the SPA LPs, for which the master tapes have all been lost. The sound quality is good, which will not surprise anyone familiar with Snyder’s work refurbishing historical recordings for Music and Arts (e.g. the set of Furtwängler’s Bruckner live performances which I reviewed here).

Another reason this is a fascinating historical document is the versions that Adler chose to perform. He typically chose the first published editions, even when revised critical editions were available. The First is recorded in the Doblinger edition of the Vienna version; the Third in the Rättig edition of the 1890; the Sixth in the 1899 Doblinger edition; and the Ninth in the 1903 Löwe edition. Most of these editions are treated with disdain nowadays, even with current trends towards eclecticism in performing versions. Although it is 40 years old, many of the judgments in Deryck Cooke’s article ‘The Bruckner Problem Simplified’ are widely held. He describes the editions chosen by Adler as “inauthentic” (the First), “unauthentic” (the Third), “unauthentic” (the Sixth), and “entirely unauthentic” (the Ninth). A quick search in John Berky’s Bruckner discography reveals that the weight of recording history is on Cooke’s side. On the First and Sixth Adler’s recordings stand in almost solitary splendor, edition-wise. He is in better company on the Third (joining Szell, Knappertsbusch, and Schuricht), but his predilection for the Löwe edition of the Ninth is shared only by Knappertsbusch. Still, the fact remains that this is how people performed and listened to Bruckner for a long time and so it is very instructive to have these performances available, particularly coming from the baton of a noted Bruckner pioneer.

Musically there is a lot to appreciate in these performances. The Third is an exciting performance, with a driving first movement and an intense adagio. The finale maintains the momentum of a very dynamic scherzo. It is easy to see why this version was so popular with mid-century conductors. There is some marginal orchestral playing, but the brass section is by and large secure. The First is also at the tempestuous end of the spectrum. Adler is definitely not from the “cathedral of sound” school of Bruckner interpretation! His opening movement is very expressive, using contrasting tempi to good effect, and the finale lives up to its galloping start.   

The Mass in D minor is an interesting piece, composed a couple of years before the First, but definitely looking ahead. The Credo anticipates elements of the mature Bruckner’s outer movements, while the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei foreshadow the later Adagios. The mysterious opening to the Kyrie also looks ahead to some of the familiar later openings. There is some shaky singing initially, but overall the performance strikes a nice balance between the choir, the orchestra, and the soloists (who include a fine bass, no details provided in the booklet, unfortunately).

The broadcast of the Sixth (one of only two recordings ever made of the Doblinger edition) has its moments. Despite some uneven playing, probably speaking to lack of rehearsal time, Adler’s expressive interpretation comes across, particularly in the Adagio. The finale, though, contains some awkward transitions and the final bars of the symphony show that Adler and the Vienna Symphony are not quite capable of pulling it all together in the apotheosis. This is the only performance where the sound becomes murky on occasion, with the wind affected more than the strings or brass.

It is only in the Ninth that the edition interferes with the music – most prominently in the Adagio where Löwe eliminates Bruckner’s climactic dissonance, but also in the scherzo where some sections of pizzicato are reassigned to flute and bassoon and a ghastly drum interpolation is introduced in the first transition to the Trio. Adler does a fine job in the opening movement, which moves majestically at a very broad pace (28’27”, a good six minutes longer than Knappertsbusch’s 1950 recordings), but he does not help matters by exaggerated slowing in the Trio. The third movement is less successful than the first, with the coda taken too quickly to my ear.

This set has been produced with great care at every level. The booklet is very informative about Adler as a person and conductor, and contains interesting commentary on each of the performances, as well as technical notes from Aaron Snyder. The sound is generally very good, particularly given the material with which Snyder had to work. I recommend this set wholeheartedly to any Brucknerian interested in the evolution of Bruckner performance and curious about how Bruckner’s symphonies sounded before the critical editions.