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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Funeral March [9:13]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107 – ed. Haas [70:35]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. ‘live’ March 2018, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 8494 [76:49]

Hot on the heels of the Fourth symphony (review) comes this third release in the Bruckner symphony cycle that Andris Nelsons is making with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. To say that this recording has been issued speedily would be something of an understatement. I received my review copy just before the end of April and when I was leafing through the booklet I found, to my amazement, that the recording had been made in the previous month. In fact, I learned from the booklet essay that the symphony was played at a concert on 8 March 2018 celebrating the 275th anniversary of the Gewandhausorchester and that performance “forms the basis” of this live recording. The Seventh symphony was a fitting choice for that anniversary concert because the orchestra gave the very first performance of the work in 1884 under the baton of Artur Nikisch.

Before discussing the performances, I think it’s appropriate to say a word about the sound. Like the previous releases in this series, the engineering is by the Dutch company, Polyhymnia International, whose work for the RCO Live label I’ve admired often in the past. I’ve been impressed by the results that Polyhymnia have achieved on Nelsons’ first two Bruckner discs but I venture to suggest that this is the best recording to date. The orchestra sounds absolutely magnificent – the unforced, majestic tone quality of the brass instruments is an especial pleasure throughout. Furthermore, the sound is well balanced and clear. Thus, for example, when the brass are heard in all their collective splendour at the end of the first movement of the symphony you can still hear the violins quite clearly. This is first rate sound.

All the releases in this Bruckner cycle will include a Wanger orchestral item. Here, the choice of Siegfried’s Funeral March seems particularly apt since Bruckner made the Adagio of his symphony into a eulogy for Wagner. Nelsons leads a performance which is deeply felt yet not to the point of over-emphasis. In particular, I approve of the way that he keeps the music moving forward at the March’s great climax. This is a performance that leavens grief with nobility.

Right at the start of the symphony, the warm and full tone of the Gewandhausorchester’s cello section catches the ear. Nelsons has placed them in the heart of the orchestra so we get the benefit of that, but an even greater benefit is that he has divided the violins left and right. I don’t recall witnessing such an arrangement during his Birmingham days and to the best of my recollection the fiddles were not divided in his recent fine Brahms cycle from Boston (review). Maybe he’s simply decided on this arrangement with this orchestra and for this composer: I’m pleased he has. As the performance progresses we hear beauty of phrasing and of line while the orchestral textures are ideal for Bruckner. The orchestra displays a tremendous dynamic range – which the engineers convey with great success. I’ll give just one example – I could give many -of how important these dynamic contrasts are. At 11:08 there’s a powerful and dramatic tutti. It makes an effect by itself but the impact is heightened all the more because in the preceding pages we’ve heard a subdued, pensive passage delivered with great refinement. As he so often does with Romantic music, Nelsons is not afraid to play passages expansively. From 18:04 the strings, joined by oboe and a soft timpani roll, gradually crescendo through a wonderfully lyrical episode. The effect is very beautiful though, as I’ve remarked once or twice before when reviewing this conductor, I can’t escape a nagging feeling that the music has been treated just a little more expansively than is good for it. The coda (from 19:47) builds up magnificently, the dynamics and tension expertly controlled by Nelsons, until the last pages are dominated, as they should be, by the brass: here the Leipzig brass section is the epitome of splendour.

The opening of the great Adagio is richly sonorous – feierlich indeed. As was the case in the preceding movement, Nelsons controls the line most successfully and his orchestra sounds simply glorious. Nelsons doesn’t ignore the sehr langsam part of Bruckner’s instruction but, sensibly, he keeps the music moving forward with purpose. The noble sound of the brass around 12:30 is a sterling example of the excellent results achieved by the Polyhymnia engineering team. At 14:55 the horns and Wagner tubas intone again the threnody with which the movement began and from this point on the ascent to the great climax begins. The extended build-up is marvellously achieved, not least because Nelsons is so attentive to dynamics – for instance the reduction in volume around 16:00. The climax (from 18:00) represents a genuine musical peak. Nelsons has used the Haas edition of the score but his performance of the whole movement fully vindicates his decision to depart from Haas, as many conductors do, by capping the climax with percussion. The long wind-down from the climax is expertly managed and the closing pages (from 22:12) glow gently, the brass choir ideally balanced.

The scherzo is dynamic, though the trio is warmly phrased. At the start of the finale Nelsons puts a real spring into the rhythms, making the music sound as joyful as I can recall hearing it. By contrast, the proud brass passage around 3:00 is very powerful and imposing, as it is when that material is later reprised. Indeed, throughout this movement, which he knits together very well, Nelsons successfully has festivity and nobility cheek by jowl. I don’t know whether the orchestra were inspired by the 275th anniversary but they are really on top of their collective game in this movement. From 11:53 the last build-up and then the peroration are truly majestic: I bet it brought the house down at the concert, though there’s no applause at the end and, indeed, the Leipzig audience is impeccably behaved throughout.

Persuasively conducted, superbly played and expertly recorded, this is a very considerable Bruckner Seventh and a noble celebration of this illustrious orchestra’s 275 years of music-making. This Andris Nelsons series is developing into a Bruckner cycle of note.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore ~ Marc Bridle



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