Listening to the First Symphony is a trip of discovery through Bruckner’s countryside, within the triangle formed by Ansfelden (birthplace), St. Florian (with its famous Stift, where Bruckner, first as a choirboy and later as a mature musician, found the much-needed distance from the workaday world to play the extremely beautiful organ) and lastly Linz.
In this First Symphony we already find the characteristics at the heart of Bruckner’s symphonic work: the outer movements exhibit three strongly profiled, truly symphonic themes that cry out for further development, while the polyphony – sometimes quite tightly woven – is an unmistakable part of the structure. No less convincing are the sometimes almost stormy Steigerungen (intensification passages), the elementary rhythmic energy and the extremely rapid modulations. What is still absent are the major chorales and the General-Pausen, the breaks that we already encounter in the Second Symphony (1872), the chief purpose of which was to separate the various thematic constructs. In the Adagio too, Bruckner goes all out in a lengthy quest for the gripping sound of A flat major, which does not let itself be found until the twentieth measure. The brilliant Scherzo is characterised by a highly contagious rhythmic energy that manifests itself in all layers of the orchestra, and only submits to being tamed in the rustic Trio. In the finale, drama and improvisation compete for the main role, but it is so soundly constructed that the entire piece remains in balance. There can be no doubt that Bruckner’s First Symphony is a masterpiece, one that portends the symphonic work yet to come in all its various manifestations.
Bruckner started the first notations for his First Symphony in January 1865 and completed the work on 14 April 1866. He himself conducted the first performance on 9 May 1868 in the Redoutensaal in Linz. In 1877 and again in 1884, the composer gave the score a thorough going-over and made a few modest alterations. But this was not the end of it: between 12 March 1890 and 18 April 1891 he created the Wiener Fassung for Hans Richter, who wanted to conduct the first performance of the First Symphony in Vienna. On this CD you can hear the Linz version. Both on the performance side and in the recording studio, over the years a strong preference has arisen for the Linz version. And the preference is not entirely without reason: the Linz version generally sounds more adventuresome or, if you prefer, somewhat less polished than the Vienna version.