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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.3 in d minor, WAB103 (1889 version, ed. Nowak) [60:40]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser: Overture [15:11]
Gewandhaus Orchester, Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. live June 2016, Leipzig Gewandhaus. DDD
DG 4797208 [75:51]

This is advertised as the first of a series of all the Bruckner symphonies from these forces.  I streamed it, fully expecting, on the basis of Nelsons’ Britten War Requiem (Arthaus Blu-ray or DVD: Recording of the Month Recording of the Month) and Shostakovich Symphonies (DG – review review review) to be sufficiently bowled over to buy the recording on disc or as a download.  In the event I didn’t, perhaps because of the use of the third, 1889, version, though I think that’s not the only reason why this recording made so little initial impression on me.  That’s doubly disappointing because I’ve seen a suggestion that it could make new friends for Bruckner; instead I fear that the first movement might make beginners give up.

Most recordings of this symphony use the 1889 version but I believe that to be a mistake – Mahler and others counselled against the final revision.  Bruckner himself seems to have had doubts, preserving his first and second thoughts and bequeathing them to the Imperial Library.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Dresden Staatskapelle (Profil) makes a very strong case for the 1873 original, one which I found totally convincing, though ultimately not in preference to Jonathan Nott (1873, Tudor), Bernard Haitink (1877, Decca Duo, with No.4: download only) or Osmo Vänskä (1877, with 1876 manuscript Adagio, mid-price Hyperion).  Details of all these are listed in my review of the Profil.  Another very fine version of the 1877 edition, recorded by Jaap van Zweden with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, was made Recording of the Month by Terry Barfoot.

Though Bruckner marks the 1889 first movement sehr langsam (very slowly) or mehr langsam (more slowly), misterioso,  Nelsons makes it sound too slow and unfocused for me, though he takes only a few seconds longer than Mariss Jansons with the Concertgebouw on their own label or Marek Janowski on Pentatone (also 1889).  All three are significantly slower than Stanisław Skrowaczewski with the LPO on their in-house label in a live RFH recording of his own edition of the 1889 version (LPO0084 – review ).   Skrowaczewski’s view of this movement with the LPO is consistent with his recording for Oehms in the series which he made with the Saarbrücken Radio Orchestra.  In both it’s apparent that he loves all four movements; I’m not sure that Nelsons and his Dresden players enjoyed such a relationship with the opening movement.

After the first movement, however, things greatly improve.  The second movement truly is bewegt and andante: in other words, the music keeps moving in a focused direction, yet at the same time developing a real sense of Innigkeit.  The sense of direction is maintained in the remaining movements, too.  Needless to say, the Gewandhaus Orchestra, with their long-standing relationship with Bruckner, offer Nelsons superb support.

Having expressed my preference for the 1873 or 1877 versions, I nevertheless felt that Skrowaczewski and the LPO make a stronger case for 1889 than Nelsons and the Gewandhaus.  As downloaded in 24/44.1 sound from, with pdf booklet, that is my recommendation for the 1889 version and I believe that I shall be listening to that alongside my 1873 and 1877 favourites in future.

On the new DG the Tannhäuser Overture is something of an irrelevance after the symphony despite the connection between the two works and the dedication of the symphony to Wagner.  Persuasively performed though it is, it would have been better placed first, if at all.  For once I would not have complained about a lack of filler.

The recorded sound is good throughout and, though these are live performances, there’s almost no audible audience noise and no applause at the end.  The notes in the booklet are adequate but little attempt is made to analyse the music in detail – just generalities about Bruckner’s spirituality – and nothing to inform the novice listener that three (three-and-a-half or even six) versions of this symphony exist.  None of the booklets which I have looked at matches the detail of the one which Hyperion provide with the Vänskä recording.

My top recommendation for this symphony remains the 1873 original, as recorded by Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Profil, or the 1877, as recorded by Osmo Vänskä on Hyperion.  For those who prefer the final, 1889, version I recommend Stanisław Skrowaczewski rather than the new Andris Nelsons whose disappointing first movement spoils an otherwise very fine performance.  I look forward to the rest of the series, however.

Brian Wilson


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