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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 (1889 version, ed. Leopold Nowak) [56.35]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanisław Skrowaczewski
rec. live, March 2014, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London.

What especially drew me to this recording of the Bruckner Symphony No. 3 was the partnership of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) under Stanisław Skrowaczewski a renowned Bruckner specialist. I was fortunate to see Maestro Skrowaczewski conduct regularly as principal conductor of the Hallé in the period 1984/91, returning to Manchester to conduct the Hallé a number of times. Born in Lwów, Poland in 1923 Skrowaczewski is acclaimed as the oldest working major conductor. He is also highly regarded as a composer. During his lengthy and illustrious career he has conducted all of the world’s most renowned orchestras and now in his nineties he has been maintaining a considerable schedule.

In 1873 Bruckner travelled to Bayreuth to meet his hero Richard Wagner who agreed to be the dedicatee of the Symphony No. 3. The score was duly marked Dedicated toThe Master, Richard Wagner, in deepest respect’. It is occasionally referred to as the ‘WagnerSymphony. Bruckner paid homage to the elder composer with the score containing several quotations from Wagner’s music dramas: Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde in the first movement, Lohengrin and Die Walküre in the Adagio in addition to references to other Wagnerian motifs.

The first version was completed in 1873 but Bruckner had severe problems in obtaining a first performance having to face one problem after another. Finally in 1877 in Vienna the Symphony received its première with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Bruckner’s own baton. The original conductor Johann von Herbeck had to withdraw and Bruckner, not regarded as a highly competent conductor, had to step in. Sadly the performance was a disaster with almost all the audience leaving before the end followed by the inevitable critical disapproval. Bruckner gave the score considerable revision and it is the 1889 version that is played here. This version, often described as reflecting the composer’s final thoughts, was subsequently published by Leopold Nowak in 1959. Any current trend to encourage the use of Bruckner’s first thoughts using the original 1873 score has not been matched by any significant influx of recordings.

With taut control throughout Skrowaczewski provides an awe-inspiring sense of structure honed from decades of experience. Setting the tone in the opening movement is the intrepid opening trumpet theme with Skrowaczewski accomplished in breadth and potency drawing near faultless playing from his London players. Providing a steadfast forward momentum that feels ideal Skrowaczewski maintains a thrilling tension throughout. Warm and reverentially consoling the treasurable second movement Adagio is beautifully performed by Skrowaczewski’s Philharmonic with all the grandeur of a magnificent Alpine scene. Understood to be inspired by the death of Bruckner’s mother I can’t help thinking this Adagio could really be an expression of Bruckner’s unreciprocated romantic infatuations. Skrowaczewski’s Scherzo is a slightly nervy with exhilarating climaxes contrasted with an enchantingly poised Austrian Ländler. I savour the vitality and nobility that Skrowaczewski lavishes on the thrilling climaxes in the concluding movement whilst sustaining an especially compelling flow to the music. I couldn’t help going back to the remarkable section with the carefree Polka heard over the serious Chorale.

Undoubtedly the most fulfilling performance of the Symphony No. 3Wagner’ I have heard is performed Günter Wand and the NDR Sinfonieorchester. A master of his art and a Bruckner specialist, Wand acknowledges the grandeur of the score with a noble and compelling reading recorded live in 1985 at Hamburg Musikhalle on Profil Edition Günter Hänssler. I have long admired the performance by Eugen Jochum with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks on Deutsche Grammophon. Recorded in 1967 at the Herkulessaal, Munich this is a powerfully expressive reading from Jochum with excellent sound that has rightly gained ‘classic’ status. Recently released is a thrilling live 2012 account from the Münchner Philharmoniker under Lorin Maazel recorded at the Philharmonie, Munich on Sony. Still lodged in the memory is a captivating performance I reported from last summer by the HR-Sinfonieorchester under Paavo Järvi at Semperoper as part of the 2014 Dresden Music Festival.

This LPO/Skrowaczewski release was recorded live in concert on 14 March 2014 at the Royal Festival Hall, London. The sound quality is quite respectable without being exceptional as ideally I would have preferred some additional depth. Although the timbre of the brass sounds satisfactory it can never be described as rich. Most of all in their high registers I find the strings and woodwind slightly sharp and dry in tone. The notes in the accompanying booklet are acceptable but it’s a shame that Bruckner specialist Skrowaczewski wasn’t asked to provide a viewpoint. I suppose it’s a matter of taste but another grumble I have is in understanding the relevance of the cover image.

This is a notable live performance deserving of significant praise. It can rub shoulders with some of the finest recordings.
Michael Cookson

Another review ...

In 2013 I was very impressed by a recording of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony in which Stanisław Skrowaczewski conducted the LPO (review). That performance of the Seventh was given in 2012 and I’m not surprised to see that some 18 months later the orchestra invited the nonagenarian maestro back to perform more Bruckner. Skrowaczewski, who was born in October 1923, was in his ninety-first year when this present performance was given and he is said to be the oldest active professional conductor. To judge by both of these LPO Bruckner performances age has not dimmed his faculties, still less his ability to pace, mould and control a performance. What is also apparent is the wisdom of a very long and distinguished career.

In small type on the back of the jewel case we are told that in this case Skrowaczewski uses his own unpublished edition of the score. As so often with Bruckner one can’t escape the vexed question of editions. For anyone who is left dazed by the issue Stephen Johnson’s booklet note may make unwelcome reading for he tells us that the Third ‘has the dubious distinction of being (Bruckner’s) most revised work – one current estimate is that there are as many as eight authentic versions.’ This comment prompted me to look at my own collection and I was genuinely surprised to see that I appear to have recordings of as many as four different editions. Going simply by the information accompanying the various discs there is the “1873 Original (Nowak)” (recorded by Georg Tintner); “1877 Oeser” (Haitink); “1877 Nowak” (Barbirolli); and “1889 (Nowak, 1959)” (Jansons, Jochum, Karajan). Goodness knows what other versions – and recordings of them – may be out there; it’s a veritable musical minefield. Quite how Skrowaczewski’s edition may vary from other editions I am unable to say. When the disc was evaluated recently on BBC Radio 3’s CD Review the presenter, Andrew McGregor, said that to his ears the Skrowaczewski edition seems pretty similar to the Nowak Edition of Bruckner’s 1889 version of the symphony with its cut finale.

My suspicion is that as a seasoned Bruckner conductor (review ~ review) Skrowaczewski has taken what seems to him to be the most credible version of the symphony, the one that represented Bruckner’s final thoughts, and perhaps altered a few small, mainly internal details based on his extensive performing experience of this composer’s music. The result is a performance that strikes me as balanced and thoughtful, capturing the spirit of Bruckner.

The first movement is strongly projected and it seems to me that Skrowaczewski always has a sure sense of where the music is going. He gets a splendid response from the LPO and I find his presentation of the music very persuasive. The various climaxes are potently delivered and throughout the orchestra offers excellent dynamic contrasts.

The LPO strings play the opening pages of the Adagio with distinction, Skrowaczewski evidently encouraging the musicians to phrase broadly. When the violas introduce the second subject (3:39 - 4:18) they do so with attractively husky tone, the phrasing warm. As in the first movement the conductor takes the long view; his is a patient reading and it’s most impressive. The craggy grandeur of the music really comes across and no detail is neglected.

The scherzo is vigorous, the rhythms sharply articulated. The sturdy Ländler trio is full of what I’d term cultivated earthiness. The start of the finale is exciting and later the Polka-like second subject is nicely inflected. Later still those passages where jagged brass and string material vie with one another simultaneously blazes thrillingly. I’m not sure I care for the very substantial slow-down near the end before the trumpet’s opening theme from the first movement returns in resplendent major-key glory but that’s a fairly minor detail.

This is a magisterial performance and the LPO does full justice to Skrowaczewski’s conception of the score. Their playing has been captured in very good sound.
The concert at which this recording was made was reviewed for Seen and Heard by Gavin Dixon. He ended his notice thus: ‘Microphones were arrayed above the players throughout the concert, suggesting that this Bruckner performance will be joining the Seventh in the LPO Live catalogue. If and when it appears, buy without hesitation.’ Having heard the disc I can only endorse this.

John Quinn