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I do not understand the disdain expressed by some musicologists for Bruckner’s Third Symphony, having found it immediately appealing from the first time I heard it; I have since enjoyed it enormously whatever the guise of version or edition used in performance. Bruckner enthusiasts now have the option of choosing from among recordings of at least six different versions of his “Wagner Symphony”, one of the most revised of his œuvre; completists, academics and even the mildly curious will own and enjoy them all to varying degrees according to personal taste. Before the relatively recent vogue for performing the original, 1873 version, it was either the 1877 Nowak edition (with the Scherzo coda) or the 1878 Oeser (without it) which was most often performed; before that, it was the 1888/89 Nowak edition which held sway. This latest release from Gerd Schaller presents yet another option: the shortened 1890 revision (ed. Rättig) prepared by Bruckner with the assistance and intervention of his students, the brothers Franz and Josef Schalk. This is by no means the first recording, as this was the version used by such as Knappertsbusch, Schuricht, Sanderling and Szell in the 50’s and 60’s, but Maestro Schaller is here giving us a modern, digital account.
Apparently, some avid Brucknerians are incensed by his having the temerity to perform and record a version which they see as a discredited abomination, but we would do well to remember that Bruckner saw the 1890 Second Edition, which confers considerable validity upon it - unless we are to assume that he was an idiot. It is not as though Schaller has not done his bit to broaden the options available to Bruckner enthusiasts, having in 2011 also performed and recorded the 1874 version at the Ebrach Musiksommer festival, as per here. That is available both separately and in the 18CD box set of the complete symphonies recently issued on the same label as this issue. The adventurous might also like to indulge in the delights of Peter Jan Marthé’s 2006 ‘Neufassung’, modishly labelled “Bruckner Reloaded” and reconstructed from the 1873-1876-1877-1889 editions by, according to the conductor, channelling the spirit of Bruckner; I find it thoroughly enjoyable if not taken too seriously…
But back to somewhat more conventional Bruckner scholarship: the interest of this recording, apart from the obvious enormous merit of the music per se, is in the way, to quote from Schaller’s notes, “[t]his edition presents an impressive blend of Bruckner’s early and late styles. Over time, the form became more concentrated and the instrumentation more sophisticated.” He then provides a concise, highly evocative, description of how each movement makes its impact. Most conductors take well under an hour before steering their symphonic ship into port; only Sanderling extends the duration of the Adagio by some three or four minutes compared with other prominent conductors of his era, while Knappertsbusch races through at 12’37”. As always, Schaller finds the juste milieu in his tempi without courting banality.
In the opening of the symphony, the hieratic trumpet solo floats above the insistent, descending string semiquavers, immediately establishing that special ambiance - solemn, mysterious, yet urgent - so typical of Bruckner’s sound world. The spacious acoustic of the Abteikirche lends grandeur, yet instrumental details, and even the sharp intake of the conductor’s breath on the upbeat, may be heard, recreating authentically the atmosphere of the live concert, which I was privileged to attend. Despite this recording being derived from that live performance, there is absolutely no audience noise.
I have noted before the excellence of the Philharmonie Festiva, assembled mostly from Munich’s finest orchestras, whose golden sonority suffuses the score with nobility. The “Gesangsperiode” passages are delicate and lyrical, and the tutti climaxes weighty, underpinned by glorious brass; a certain slight harshness in the lead violins which was discernible in the live performance seems here to have been tamed by the recording engineers. I find the coda to this movement in the Schalk version, with its unexpected pauses and sudden outbursts, somewhat abrupt, but it is undeniably dramatic; Schaller maximises the impact of its conclusion, which consists of a splendid crescendo, a wistful comment from the solo flute, then crashing descending octaves in quick succession.
The Adagio is expansive but not sentimentalised, in accordance with Bruckner’s instruction of “Andante”, not “Adagio”, and again, as so often in this symphony, a descending figure lifted from the “Mariakadenz” in Bruckner’s motet, Ave Maria, lies at the heart of its emotional import. Just occasionally the violins’ tuning could be sweeter here, but the brass and woodwind again excel.
The wide gamut of moods in the Scherzo is very successfully encompassed, from the muttering string entrance to the increasing intensity of the carillon effect – another of those descending motifs - to the lilting, rustic dance rhythms of the Trio, and the brief movement concludes in a blazing fanfare. Special mention must be made of the wonderfully animated contribution of the viola section. The omission of the coda seems no great loss, given how well this movement now hangs together.
The martial mood is carried over into the discordant, brass-rich declarations which open the finale; again, Schaller responds most sensitively to the moulding and shaping of the combined chorale and chattering violin tune before easing gracefully into the limping, slow dance. The energy of the development section is palpable, and Schaller manages to meld the deliberately disparate and incongruous elements of this movement into a coherent musical structure, no doubt aided by the concision of the performing edition used here. The return of the trumpet theme, first heard in the first movement but now devoid of angst, provides, to quote Schaller’s notes again, “a radiant apotheosis which dispels all the previous turmoil”, and once again it is the warmth, power and security of the brass in his orchestra which most impress.
I personally incline more often to hearing Bruckner’s first thoughts in this symphony and especially prize the recordings of the 1873 Urfassung by Nézet-Séguin and the Dresden Staatskapelle, Ballot’s monumental account played in Celibidache style, and more mainstream versions by Inbal and Blomstedt. As the historical back-up, there are live, mono recordings conducted by Knappertsbusch in fiery, vintage form with the Bavarian State Orchestra in 1953 and the Vienna Phiharmonic in 1954; the latter is both better played and recorded than the performance from the year before. However, when I want to hear Bruckner’s final version given the best possible advocacy, it is to this striking modern recording that I will first return.