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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Wagner’ (1877 and 1889 versions)
CD 1: 1877 version; Adagio (1876)
CD 2: 1889 version.
New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia/Johannes Wildner
Rec. Festspielhaus Recklinghausen, Germany, October 2001 - January 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.555928-29 [2CDs: 2:07:40]


Bruckner paid homage to one of his primary deities by dedicating his Symphony No. 3 to Richard Wagner. The symphony popularly known as the ‘Wagner’ contains several quotations from Wagner’s music dramas; Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde in the first movement, Lohengrin and Die Walküre again in the Adagio, as well as passing references to other Wagnerian motifs.

Bruckner was an inveterate reviser of his works, probably as a result of his tendencies towards perfectionism, a lack of confidence and an extreme sensitivity to criticism. Consequently his Symphony No. 3 ‘Wagner’ was subject to extensive re-workings over a number of years. In addition there have been several alterations made by others such as collaborators, students and publishing editors. Its complex and protracted history is an essay in itself.

The ‘Wagner Symphony’ was completed in 1873 and a feted recording of this ‘original’ version is available on Naxos 8.553454 conducted by Georg Tintner. Bruckner had severe problems in obtaining a first performance; there seemed to be difficulties at every turn. Unfortunately for Bruckner the most telling reason was that his adoration of Wagner antagonised the vociferous and influential anti-Wagner faction; furthermore the symphony carried an authorised dedication to Wagner. Finally the Symphony received its premiere with the composer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Vienna in 1877. It is this so called ‘third’ version played by New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia under Johannes Wildner that we hear on CD 1.

The 1877 premiere of the Symphony No. 3 ‘Wagner’ received much criticism and antagonism. We are told that by the time of the final movement there were only twenty-five people left in the audience. Famously one of these was Gustav Mahler.

Also contained on this release is the symphony’s longer Adagio (CD 1, track 5) from 1876 which forms part of an intermediate version. It can be programmed as an alternative to the second movement (CD 1, track 2) from the 1877 ‘third’ version.

In the 1877 version Austrian-born conductor Johannes Wildner ensures a forward-moving pace never allowing a hint of sluggishness. The tutti sound that Wildner draws from the players is sharp and clean, a well-judged dialogue throughout between wind and strings. There’s fine control of dynamics and balance with taut and concentrated playing. I was particularly impressed with the way Wildner highlights the textual detail and how he gives the numerous themes time to breathe.

Contained on CD 2 is an 1889 version of the Symphony No. 3 ‘Wagner’ edited by musicologist Leopold Nowak. This has been stated recently by some Bruckner scholars to be actually the ninth alternative score. This 1889 edition is the most usual version to be heard today. Owing to cuts and other revisions this 1889 edition is some nine minutes shorter than the 1877 version on CD1.

Johannes Wildner gives a performance of the 1889 version that is refined and thoughtful, never over-ambitious or too red-blooded with just the appropriate amount of forward momentum. I liked the way the impressive Wildner accurately maintains a clarity of line all the way through to the Finale. The results are wonderfully expressive with Wildner using the large orchestral forces to colourful and potent effect, especially in the superbly articulated climaxes.

The sound quality of this Naxos double CD set has presence and body which really suits these powerful works. The scholarly annotation is quite complex and is not always easy to read. Both versions of the Symphony are shaped with care and are superbly played.

Naxos are to congratulated: These are memorable performances and make for a fascinating Bruckner document.

Michael Cookson

see also review by John Phillips

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