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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
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 7208 [75:51]

Only recently I heard Andris Nelsons in a Brahms symphony cycle with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (review). Now along comes his first recording with what is to be his “other” orchestra: the Gewandhaus Orchester, Leipzig. In fact, I don’t think he formally takes up his appointment as Gewandhauskapellmeister until the 2017/18 season so this live recording was made in advance of that but it seems there’s already a good relationship between Nelsons and the orchestra. I believe it is intended that they will record a complete Bruckner cycle for DG.

To the best of my knowledge this is the first commercial recording of a Bruckner symphony by Nelsons but, in fact, one Bruckner recording by him has previously been issued and, as it happens, it’s a recording of the Third Symphony. Back in 2011, I think, Vol 19, No 12 of the BBC Music Magazine was accompanied by a covermount CD on which Nelsons conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in this work. The performance was given in Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 25 November 2009 and it’s a BBC recording.

Then, as now, Nelsons used the 1889 version of the score in the Leopold Nowak edition. The Third is one of the Bruckner symphonies where the question of which version to use rears its head. The issue is an important one and it’s entirely glossed over in the DG booklet which merely mentions, almost in passing, that there are three versions. The question is covered more fully in Michael Tanner’s note accompanying the BBC release: in comparison Jessica Duchen’s note for DG, which essentially stitches together a number of fairly general comments by Nelsons, is disappointingly superficial.

The first version of the score dates from 1873. As Michael Tanner points out, the score then went through some pretty drastic pruning. The 1873 score was 280 pages long; the 1877 version was reduced to 262 pages and the 1889 version, after radical revision, shrank to a ‘mere’ 202 pages. In making his revisions Bruckner took counsel from a number of well-meaning friends, especially after the symphony’s disastrous premiere in Vienna in 1877. Michael Tanner puts it well when he comments that these friends “were not musical geniuses, and hence thought of as ‘mistakes’ what were often Bruckner’s most striking ideas about structure, harmony and orchestration.” I think it is likely, therefore, that the Bruckner aficionado will be drawn to the original version of the score. One snag with the original version, though, is that, as Tanner’s page count indicates, there’s an awful lot of music. Georg Tintner’s recording of the 1873 score, also edited by Nowak, plays for 77:32 and his traversal of the first movement alone takes 30:34. Tintner, it has to be said, adopts a fairly measured approach. Simone Young takes 68:38 to play the 1873 score and shaves a full five minutes off Tintner’s timing for the first movement. Her approach, which doesn’t short change the spacious aspect of the music, is more to my taste.

If the length of the original version is daunting, the 1877 revision may be more digestible. Bernard Haitink’s fine recording of the Third uses the 1877 score in the edition by Fritz Oeser. That, being a shorter version of the symphony, plays for rather less time than Tintner or Young. Haitink takes 61:46 and though he has quite a bit more music to get through than Nelsons his overall timing is not much longer, which suggests a rather tauter approach. That, in fact, is the case. As in his Brahms cycle, there are times, particularly in the first movement, when Nelsons is inclined to linger over slow music in his traversal of this symphony. However, I didn’t find that unduly distracting in this performance.

Before leaving the question of which edition to use I should say that in choosing the 1889 version of the score Nelsons is in good company. Among the conductors who have used this version are Eugen Jochum in both of his recordings - though I haven’t heard the second of these with the Staatskapelle Dresden - Karajan and Stanisław Skrowaczewski. These conductors, and others, may well have taken the view that the 1889 version is the one that is best suited to presentation to the general listener and I think it’s arguable that that is so.

There is much to admire in this new recording of the Third. Not the least of its virtues is the wonderfully burnished sound of the Leipzig orchestra. The Klang of the orchestra seems to me to be well-nigh ideal for Bruckner; it’s as if the players have the music in their blood. Nelsons’ core tempo for the first movement seems to me to be judiciously chosen. It’s broadly similar to Haitink’s speed and more forward-moving than Tintner’s. I can imagine that Nelsons’ expansive treatment of some of Bruckner’s secondary material may seem too generous to some listeners but overall I found his account of the music persuasive. I’m sure that the superb playing of the orchestra helps enormously in this respect, not least in the way that climaxes open up majestically. It was interesting to make comparisons with Nelsons’ earlier CBSO performance. I have a great admiration for the CBSO and they played to their usual extremely high standard in that performance. It has to be said, though, that the sound of the Leipzig orchestra has even greater lustre and I’m sure that the warm acoustic of the Gewandhaus has played a part here: for once the immediate and exceptionally clear acoustic of Symphony Hall, Birmingham is not ideally suited.

Nelson’s new account of the slow movement is extremely fine. The opening is very hushed and from the outset the strings and the horn section of the LGO make a splendid impression. Nelsons phrases the music in a dedicated fashion and the LGO’s playing throughout the movement is truly refined. Here, as elsewhere, it is evident that Nelsons has inherited from his predecessor, Riccardo Chailly, an orchestra that is in peak condition. The attention to detail in matters of dynamics that was evident in the first movement is even more on display in this Adagio – I think Nelsons is now even more daring in the matter of dynamic contrast than he was in his Birmingham performance. Haitink, using a different edition of the score, is masterly in this movement but I also find Nelsons very persuasive. His is an intense and deeply-felt approach to the music though I don’t believe he’s ever guilty of wearing his heart on his sleeve.

The scherzo is excitingly done, the rhythms strongly articulated. I like the way Nelsons brings out the rusticity of the waltz-like trio. The finale can seem rather disparate: for example, I’ve never quite understood how the tutti passage dominated by off beats fits in (4:14 - 5:41). All I can say is that Nelsons convinces me in the way he handles this movement. At times he drives the music hard but not in an excessive way. As the end approaches (just before 12:04) he pulls back the tempo very substantially in a rhetorical fashion – he did exactly the same in Birmingham. Arguably the effect is a little overdone but it does pave the way for a major-key restatement of the symphony’s opening theme that is imbued with grandeur. In this final peroration the LGO’s brass section is absolutely resplendent.

Throughout the symphony the Gewandhaus Orchester, Leipzig offers sovereign playing and overall Nelsons is a convincing guide to the symphony. You may wonder why I’ve drawn comparison with the CBSO recording when it is no longer generally available save through the back order service of the BBC Music Magazine. The reason is simple: if you already have that recording you may feel you don’t need this new one but I would argue that despite the many merits of that earlier performance the new one represents a step up, not least in terms of playing quality and, especially, recorded sound.

By coincidence – or perhaps not – Nelsons’ first recording with the Boston Symphony also included the Tannhäuser Overture (review). This Leipzig performance is a very good one indeed and I think that the sound of the LGO is once again royally suited to this music. In the booklet Nelsons comments on the Wagnerian links in Bruckner’s symphony and says that he finds echoes of Tannhäuser in the finale. Therefore the coupling is a logical one, and much more logical than on the Boston disc. Perhaps his reference to the finale is the justification for placing the overture after the symphony on the CD but I would have thought it would have been much more logical to have it as the first track on the disc.

As I’ve indicated, the recorded sound on this CD is very good indeed. I couldn’t detect any extraneous audience noise and there’s no applause after either work.

As is so often the case nowadays with the major labels the documentation is rather superficial. Jessica Duchen does little more in her note than to provide a framework for a number of fairly general comments by the conductor about Bruckner and this symphony.

I enjoyed this disc and found it rewarding. Nelsons gives us an admirable account of Bruckner’s Third as an auspicious launch to his new cycle. I look forward to further instalments.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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