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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor ‘Wagner Symphony’ (1877)
Adagio from Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1876)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1889)
New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia/Johannes Wildner
rec. 2001/2, Festspielhaus Recklinghausen, Germany
NAXOS 8.555928-29 [2 CDs: 127:40]

The dedicated Bruckner enthusiast is now able to acquire a recording of every variation of the so-called “Wagner Symphony”, which, according to some estimates, may fairly be numbered as nine in all, if we count all the versions and editions. I do not propose to argue their relative merits; I find myself as likely to enjoy the increasingly popular original, 1873 version as much as the final, 1890 Schalk edition but it is a fine prospect to have two other major accounts from in between those two extremes in one double CD set – with the longer, alternative Adagio from 1876 as a bonus. There is of course no shortage of these two versions by luminaries such as Haitink and Solti for the 1877, and Sanderling and Karajan for the 1889, but this one fits neatly as a package into the gap between my favourite recordings of the original version by Ballot, Blomstedt, Inbal and Nézet-Séguin (with the Dresdeners, not the Montreal orchestra) and the recent recording of Schalk edition by Gerd Schaller. On its release back in 2004, two MusicWeb colleagues gave it glowing recommendations. Furthermore, the excellence of Wildner’s 1998 recording of Bruckner’s Ninth with the SPCM fourth movement completion, with the same forces, also on the Naxos label, gave every indication that the recording under review would be highly recommendable.

My interest in it was piqued as a result of having recently reviewed several new recordings of this symphony. These are pacy, sharp-edged accounts; string tone could sometimes be fuller, but we are not dealing with one of the great Rolls Royce, Austro-German orchestras here, just a very talented second-rank band. I occasionally heard a slight edge on the sound, which is not quite as rich and full as that of the earlier recording of the Ninth - although it has the same production team, if not the same location. Mystery is sacrificed to drama in Wildner’s tight conception of the work; he builds the sawing string passages of the first movement fiercely, but, to be fair, the Gesangsperiode flows sweetly, and he is flexible enough both to give the pauses proper weight, and the music sufficient time to breathe. He does not fall in to the trap of ignoring the “Bewegt, quasi Andante” instruction in the Adagio but again, the recorded sound itself does not capture the richness of the harmonics of those lovely, meandering string dialogues with the brass, beautiful though their playing is. The bite and propulsiveness of the Scherzo are of a piece with Wildner’s driven approach but there is no lack of Schwung in the Trio. Of course, this edition restores the coda, and, frankly, I can take it or leave it; I’m not sure it adds much to the impact, being a bit obvious. A little rhythmic slackness in the horns in the opening bars of the finale compromises its first impact but the ensuing dance section is charming, and the whole movement rises to a rousing climax.

The bonus of longer Adagio from 1876 allows the listener to programme it into a listening of the whole symphony if so desired; I rather like it and feel that Wildner generates a grander, more spacious mood here where the structure permits him more time to do so.

The account of the 1889 version is one of the swiftest on record by some margin; I love the manic urgency of the opening even if I still miss a sense of mystery, just as I did in the previous version – but the sheer excitement works on its own terms. Similarly, the Adagio is fast-paced but not lacking in weight or dignity and the orchestra plays this movement especially well, with real purpose and direction from their conductor. The downward carillon of “tolling bells” on the brass is very homogenous and dynamic control is especially nuanced; the “New World Symphony” phrase which concludes the movement is memorably lovely. The Scherzo is incisively articulated and pointed with a lilting Trio and no, I don’t miss the coda at all; I love the abrupt cut-off. The finale is of course abridged and truncated compared with its predecessors by several minutes; I understand why some Brucknerians still prefer the conciseness of this version, especially when Wildner plays the rustic dance passages so affectionately, to contrast with the animal energy of the first subject. My impression overall is that the orchestra itself responds somehow more viscerally to this supposedly despised arrangement; certainly, they are at their finest in this most beguiling of Bruckner’s sometimes triumphant, sometimes problematic finales.
Ralph Moore

Previous reviews: John Phillips ~ Michael Cookson



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