How to play Bruckner with nine players


A chamber venue – St. Mary’s Church in Petworth

The CBSO’s Innovation Chamber Ensemble closes the 2013 Petworth Festival at St Mary’s Church with a programme of large orchestral works performed by a surprisingly small ensemble.

I was rather perplexed on discovering that Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Wesendock Lieder, and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony were not only being played in a village church, but also by an ensemble of no more than sixteen players. Why use a chamber group when piano reductions have served the task of bringing orchestral repertoire to places unable to host an entire orchestra perfectly well since the nineteenth century? And why even attempt to reduce down works by two composers know for their large-scale, orchestral effects?

Only the performance itself would tell how successful chamber versions would be. Siegfried Idyll was never going to be easy to shrink into smaller forces, especially since much of its power comes from the mass of swirling strings. With only one string player per part, the opening starts off as a string quartet alone. Unfortunately it comes across as rather weedy, not managing a full-bodied sound until the winds enter. Issues with tuning are more obvious with only one per part too, with some questionable moments for the violins. The piano, probably included to flesh out the sound, is also problematic as there is some discrepancy between it and the rest of the ensemble’s tuning. Its timbre has difficulty mixing into the overall sound, and throughout the concert it tends to rather haphazardly stick out.

However, the overall sound is interesting and allows one to notice things otherwise missed in an orchestral version. Tuning issues aside, once the players get into it, their sound becomes increasingly full and rich. Moreover, the smaller ensemble allows for a greater contrast in character since there is more room play with the music. This is especially true for Wagner’s song cycle, Wesendock Lieder. The ensemble expertly cushions Claire Prewer’s full-bodied voice, which is particular suited to Wagner.

The ensemble is reduced further in the second half to only nine players. Even though the initial build-up at the start of the first movement is made by the string quartet alone, they create a sense of building momentum. The quartet really come into their own in the second movement, as they produce the most romantic and sublime sounds, edging on the grandiose – what this movement really demands. The inclusion of an organ is far more successful than the piano, as its reedy tones blend subtly with the ensemble. The different sound effects the organ can attain by its choice of stops, such as the flute-sound during the second movement, significantly helps to simulate an orchestral sound.

It would be impossible for the Innovation Ensemble to wholly achieve the effects of an orchestra, but they certainly beat a piano reduction. Nevertheless, they somehow realize the fullness and impact of an entire orchestra. As always, the close of the final movement is the most highly-anticipated moment – and they do not disappoint. In the final moments they quite astoundingly pull off a full orchestral climax, with only nine players!

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