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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1888/89 version, edited Leopold Nowak) [55.29]
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live 25 September 2017, Stiftsbasika, St. Florian, Linz, Austria

For the second release in its cycle of Bruckner symphonies the Münchner Philharmoniker under Valery Gergiev now turns its attention to Symphony No. 3 using the 1889 version (aka 1888/89) edited by Leopold Nowak (1959). This is the orchestra’s preferred version, having recorded the symphony with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in 1980, Sergiu Celibidache in 1980/90s and Lorin Maazel in 2012. It is particularly apt that Münchner Philharmoniker is using St. Florian to record its Bruckner cycle, a sacred edifice that held a special significance for the composer. Bruckner was born at Ansfelden near the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian described as his “lifelong spiritual home” by biographer Derek Watson. At St. Florian Bruckner served as a choirboy, becoming a teacher there and organist (1850/55), had works premièred there and in accordance with his wishes after his death his remains were placed in a sarcophagus in the charnel house under the great Krismann organ that he treasured.

In 1873 Bruckner travelled to Villa Wahnfried at Bayreuth to meet his hero Richard Wagner, who agreed to be the dedicatee of the Third Symphony. The score was duly marked Dedicated to ‘The Master, Richard Wagner, in deepest respect’. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Wagner’ Symphony’ with his Third Bruckner paid homage to Wagner as his original 1873 score is elaborated with quotations which echo motifs from Wagner’s Die Walküre; Tristan und Isolde; Die Meistersinger and Tannhäuser. Bruckner completed his first version of the Third in 1873 but had severe problems in obtaining a first performance with difficulties arising at every turn. Finally, in 1877 in Vienna it received its première with Wiener Philharmoniker under Bruckner’s baton. It is thought that Bruckner was not a very competent conductor and sadly the performance was a disaster, with many of the audience leaving before the end followed by humiliation and the inevitable critical disapproval. The Third was the symphony that Bruckner allocated more time to than any other, subjecting the score to considerable revision. In 1890 a performance of his revised version with Wiener Philharmoniker under Hans Richter was an unqualified triumph.

Listening to this stunning live performance from St. Florian, Gergiev brings this outstanding score to life, directing a surefooted performance with a strong sense of emotional involvement that feels both sincere and inspiring. How Gergiev combines sharp orchestral detail with significant drama, yet nothing feels exaggerated or overblown, is remarkable. With ideal weight and sensible tempi, the impressive playing of Münchner Philharmoniker has unwavering unity which doesn’t comes at the cost of expression. Also impressive is how Gergiev moulds the phrases and shapes the dramatic surges with real authority, particularly in the outer movements. Very marked is the quality of intonation and vibrant tone colour achieved by the orchestra, notably the cultivated woodwind, and the radiant timbre of the brass. One senses that Gergiev is making every note count whilst achieving conspicuous levels of dramatic tension and grandeur. In the opening movement Gergiev communicates a bold and optimistic mood, while ensuring excellent flow and a resounding forward momentum. The treasurable second movement Adagio is admirably performed by the Munich players with Gergiev setting a pace that feels ideal. Gergiev finds a poetic quality here, together with an undertow of melancholy and reflection. Sometimes said to be inspired by the death of Bruckner’s mother I always think of this movement as Bruckner’s expression of unreciprocated love for a girl with whom he became infatuated. Gergiev ensures determined rhythmic energy in the Scherzo and I love the way he contrasts the dramatic passages with the delightful, feathery Austrian Ländler. It’s easy to savour the sense of Alpine grandeur which Gergiev produces in the gripping final movement, sustaining an especially impressive flow which feels entirely convincing. The uplifting polka over the solemn chorale which after the conclusion of the symphony is conspicuous; I can never resist repeating it again. Recorded live at the basilica St. Florian, the sound has reasonable clarity, presence and good balance. Not surprisingly in the large space of the basilica there is some moderate reverberation that doesn’t prove too problematic. There is virtually no extraneous noise to worry about and the applause at the conclusion has been removed.

The recording of Third Symphony that I turn to first is the live 2008 Semperoper, Dresden recording from Staatskapelle Dresden under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Using the original version of 1873 (ed. Nowak 1977), complete with its abundant Wagnerian moments, Nézet-Séguin directs a performance I find revelatory and awe-inspiring with an incomparable inner tension (review). From 2014 at Montréal, Nézet-Séguin has also recorded the original score live with Orchestre Métropolitain on Atma. This is another commendable account from Nézet-Séguin, yet on balance I feel the playing of Staatskapelle Dresden has greater accomplishment. One of the most satisfying recordings I have heard using the popular third and final version of 1888/89 (edited Nowak, 1959) is played by the NDR Sinfonieorchester under Günter Wand recorded live in 1985 at Hamburg Musikhalle on Profil. A master of his art and a Bruckner specialist, Wand acknowledges the grandeur of the score with a distinguished reading in excellent radio broadcast sound. Worthy of consideration too is Lorin Maazel with the Münchner Philharmoniker using the 1889 version, ed. Nowak recorded the work live in 2012 at Philharmonie Munich giving an impressive performance on Sony (review).

This is an outstanding recording from Gergiev and Münchner Philharmoniker beautifully played that I find both satisfying and compelling, standing comparison with the finest accounts.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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