Both the timing (at least five minutes short of most
performances) and the mealy-mouthed half-explanation of the performing
version used here may give an indication that this is Bruckner’s Third,
but not as we know it. The symphony has the most complex history of
versions and editions of any I know: a full account is given in the
though the excellent Stephen Johnson writes a more readable version
(is that version 1a, or 2? Bruckner 3 gets to you like that after a
while) in his notes for Hyperion’s recording of the 1877 version (with
1876 Adagio) conducted by Osmo Vänskä. That disc is worth
acquiring not just for the notes but for a thrilling and intelligent
performance of almost the most cogent version of the symphony. This
disc? It is, I suppose, worth hearing because you wouldn’t otherwise
believe how desperate some companies are to make money by peddling bad
nights in the concert hall by good musicians as ‘of historical importance’.
However well-meaning Franz Schalk was when he slashed
Bruckner’s longest symphony (in its original version) to ribbons to
make it more palatable for a contemporary audience, the results are
not just a betrayal of Bruckner’s harmonic language but more fundamentally
of his gift to make large paragraphs of different sorts of music knit
together. I hope that Schalk’s few recordings, including some exciting
Beethoven, will one day rescue him from bogeyman of Brucknerian history
status. In the meanwhile the exhumation of this performance does him
no favours. Intonation, rhythmic accuracy and ensemble are so wretched,
so often, that niceties of balance and tone colour come to seem like
desirable but dispensable extras.
Knappertsbusch sets in motion the mysterious, descending
arpeggios that anchor the whole at a sensible tempo, at which the haunting
trumpet theme falls and rises in one noble swoop. For some minutes the
odd slip can be ignored, the occasional filled out chord or phrase.
But after a while it begins to tell: the essential starkness of the
music is completely lost under a welter of unintentional mistakes and
determined Wagnerisms on Schalk’s part. The music winds down to a complete
standstill between 15’ and 16’, Schalk having cut the necessary linking
At least the performance of the first movement held
some kind of shape while the edition robs it of sense. Schalk does less
to the Adagio (cutting two parts entirely of its ababa construction)
but the players do a thoroughly successful hatchet job. Even the glowing,
vernal second theme of the adagio sags under the strings’ inability
or unwillingness to give the phrase shape. The introduction of the third
theme is dogged by poor ensemble and intonation. Strings veer between
ploddy and desperately out of tune, the recording recesses most wind
parts and when it doesn’t they are often sharp. Off-cuts from the Munich
Bierkeller Band (Reserves) break in at unpredictable moments: the brass
intervention at 9’50" is so crude that after a few seconds the
engineers decide to tame it. The Scherzo fares least badly; Kna’s feeling
for this music, a dance by turns gentle and boisterous but always good-natured,
was innate, and the strings offer a rough simplicity which suits it.
Worse is to come in the finale – a whole chapter in
a recent volume of Bruckner studiesis devoted to why the post-1877 versions
of this movement make little sense compared to the two up to that point.
You don’t need to read it, however, to hear that after Bruckner’s initial
conglomeration of polka and funeral chorale the music starts to unravel
in a disconcerting fashion at 5’50" and limps from there to what
feels like an undeservedly grand conclusion. Knappertsbusch’s lumbering
tempo doesn’t help to unify the material: we are a world away from the
satisfaction engendered by Vänskä or by Haitink’s two recordings.
Anyone who loves Bruckner’s music or Knappertsbusch’s
conducting should steer clear of this travesty.