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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.3 in D minor (Edition of 1877 with additions from 1889)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Lovro Von Matacic
(Recorded at a Promenade Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London, 23rd July 1983)
BBC Legends BBCL 4079-2 [59.26]


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In 1983 the eighty-four year old Lovro Von Matatic appeared for the first and only time at a BBC Promenade Concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra with whom he had been associated since the 1950s. He conducted Schumannís Piano Concerto with Cecille Ousset and this performance of Brucknerís Third Symphony. The choice of Bruckner was entirely appropriate as it was with the Philharmonia that Matacic had made the first ever recording of a Bruckner symphony by a British orchestra, the Fourth, in 1954. Walter Legge of Columbia had chosen Matacic for the project because of fine credentials as a Bruckner specialist even then and the fact that the Fourth was not then in Karajanís repertoire. Karajan was Leggeís star conductor but Legge felt that the only Bruckner symphonies Karajan performed at that time, the Eighth and Ninth, were not commercially viable. Matacic later recorded more Bruckner symphonies: the Zero, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies for Denon and Supraphon. There are also "off-air" recordings of him conducting the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth as well as two others of the Third. So he is a real Bruckner specialist, often overlooked these days when the pantheon of great Bruckner conductors is drawn up. However, there is something special about this recording of the Third Symphony that puts it on a par with Matacicís studio recordings, promoting it as a major new release, since it comes from the master tape made in the Royal Albert Hall and is in digital sound.

As Alan Sandersí notes tell us the BBC were experimenting with digital recording in 1983 so this was one of the first concert tapes made by them in the new medium. So precious is the tape the producers have had to go to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford to find a machine (a Telefunken-Mitsubishi X-80 open reel DASH format for the technically minded) that could play it. Only two hundred of these machines were ever made and the BBC stopped using them many years ago. The result is a revelation in sound terms alone. Put from your mind any thought that this is a recording that needs special tolerance, as some BBC Legends releases do. Listening to it is like turning on Radio 3 one night last Summer to hear a "live" relay from the Proms, so accurate does a digital archive recording come down to us. The recorded balance on that night in 1983 was well suited to convey the Bruckner sound with a good amount of air around the instruments, excellent stereo spread with timpani especially well-caught, firm brass, and a real feeling of "being there" on the night.

The Philharmonia also sound as if they enjoyed playing under their ageing guest conductor, responding to every turn of his fine interpretation of this difficult-to-bring-off work. Difficult in part because itís a flawed piece when played in anything other than the original version of 1873 (edited by Leopold Nowak and based on the Wagner dedication score) before Bruckner submitted it to revision and even then itís hard to escape the feeling that we are still some way short of Brucknerís greatest years. Eliahu Inbal (Teldec 0630141972) and Georg Tintner (Naxos 8.553454) have recorded that version and either should be on the shelves of interested Brucknerites. Most other recordings essentially use either of the revised versions of 1877 and 1889 between which there are further differences, though this is not the place to discuss those. Whilst this release identifies the edition used as being that of 1877 the truth is that Matacic has actually interpolated at least a couple of changes from 1889 further muddying the text question that invariably comes up when considering Bruckner recordings. Those of you who know the differences between the two editions will notice, for example, that at the coda to the Scherzo in this performance the 1889 truncated ending has been imposed on that of 1877.

In the first movement Matacic takes the long, strategic view and whilst his is an expressive style with Brucknerís themes he never loses sight of that bigger picture. He can also vary his tempi to a remarkable degree without letting you know where the gear changes are. That is surely an acid test for a great Bruckner conductor because you can only do that when you really know the scores very well - know where the weak and the strong points are. There is excitement and lyricism in equal and appropriate measure too and some especially good cello playing with the players encouraged to really lean into their music. I especially liked too the arrival of the recapitulation which we find Matacic has prepared us for with a quiet inevitability that is very moving. After this the second movement is direct and noble but you really do need to hear the 1873 score to hear what Bruckner originally meant it to sound like. For all that, Matacic is moving and convincing and there are passages where his urgent pressing forward assists in getting across the flawed message being conveyed giving the movement a real questing nature.

A good rhythmic pull and the full brass reproduction of the recording then helps to maintain a steady momentum in the third movement scherzo and just the right amount of tempo change gives a real contrast in the bucolic trio which Matatic makes dance along very effectively. The finale of this symphony is one of those where Brucknerís material and his organisation of it is just not strong enough for him to deliver a convincing enough crowning to the entire work as he does in the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies in spades, for example. Matacic does his best with the movement, as you would expect by now, and he makes as good a case for it as any that I have heard. It certainly doesnít outstay its welcome, as it sometimes can. The stately "polka" sections especially contrast memorably with the chorales, though I doubt if even the greatest conductor could ever save this movement from being second rate. However, once underway the coda to the movement emerges with a genuine feeling of triumph and rounds off a performance of this problematic work that Iím sure I will return to many times.

A real gem from the archives giving us a fine performance of a problematic work in excellent sound.

Tony Duggan


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