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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin – Prelude [9:17]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 4 in E flat major, ‘Romantic’ WAB 104 (1878/80 version – ed. Nowak)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. ‘live’ May 2017, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig

This is the second instalment in the Bruckner symphony cycle that Andris Nelsons is making with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Last year I was impressed by the inaugural release in the series which featured the Third symphony (review).

In approaching this new recording, I thought it might be quite interesting to use as my comparator the recording made at the beginning of the 1980s by Herbert Blomstedt with the Staatskapelle Dresden. This recording, originally issued on the Denon label, has been much admired by several of my colleagues, and rightly so; it’s a distinguished reading (review). My reasons for selecting the Blomstedt disc, apart from its artistic excellence, were that the sonics on that recording have been praised in the past, albeit the sound is now over 30 years old, and that I thought it would be interesting to compare the playing of the two great orchestras from the former East Germany.

In fact, the comparisons between the two orchestras revealed a surprising contrast. Both orchestras – the Gewandhausorchester of 2017 and the Staatskapelle of ca 1981 – play marvellously. However, the sound of the Dresden orchestra was more individual. In particular, I noticed very bright trumpets and that the horns have that east European sound that is increasingly rare these days. By contrast, the sound produced by the Leipzigers is much more ‘Western’. I wonder if that reflects the fact that since the reunification of Germany more westerners have joined that great ensemble. As to the respective recordings, the Blomstedt recording was made in a more resonant acoustic and the orchestra is heard at more of a distance from the microphones than is the case with DG’s recording. The Dresden recording, good though it is, is outshone by the richness and depth of the new DG recording.

The Blomstedt performance plays for 66:52 – the total running time of 78:20 on the back cover is an obvious error. Nelsons takes about three minutes longer and the difference can largely be explained, I think, by the fact that he takes some more reflective episodes in the outer movement a bit more expansively than Blomstedt does. Both conductors use the same Nowak edition.

Nelson’s opening is impressive; the music is well paced and beautifully voiced. In the second group (2:34) he invests the music with grace and lightness of touch – as he does whenever this material is revisited. It seems to me that he handles the transitions well. Bruckner is a composer to whom dynamic contrast matters hugely and this present performance certainly delivers that – throughout the symphony, in fact. So, we hear exciting, blazing tuttis but the often spare-textured sections (for example 6:21-7:22) are very well presented. There’s grandeur, too – for instance in the passage between 10:00 and 11:10. However, that very passage is followed immediately by a subdued, searching episode and Nelsons does rather seem to savour every phrase; some listeners may well prefer the approach of Blomstedt in such a passage where he’s somewhat more direct but no less thoughtful. I have to say I can find much to admire in both approaches. I don’t think there will be any reservations whatsoever, though, about the way this first movement ends in Leipzig: the concluding peroration sounds magnificent, the unison horns of the Gewandhausorchester ringing out thrillingly.
At the start of the second movement Nelsons moulds the melodic line beautifully though I wondered if perhaps he was just a bit too expressive. Arguably, Blomstedt achieves a better, more natural flow. That said, Nelsons and his orchestra ravish the ear. As the movement unfolded I found that Nelsons carried me along with him; his conducting is highly persuasive and he sustains concentration admirably. It helps, of course, that we’re treated to sovereign playing from the Gewandhausorchester. Here, and in the symphony’s other movements, Nelsons controls the build-up to climaxes very well indeed and the climaxes themselves open out regally.

The famous ‘hunting’ scherzo goes very well. The Leipzig brass blaze excitingly and also display plenty of athleticism. One has a real sense of the thrill of the chase. The ‘hunting’ sections are very exciting but the contrasting, gentle trio is equally successful. There’s considerable refinement in the playing and it sounds for all the world as if our huntsmen have paused by a cooling stream to give their steeds a drink. But soon the hunt is up again and the chase resumes excitingly.

As delivered by the Gewandhausorchester, the first great tutti in the finale is tremendously imposing and that description applies equally to all the similar passages in this movement. The finale can seem a bit episodic but I find that Nelsons leads the listener on very successfully. As in the first movement, Bruckner’s dynamic contrasts are given full value – though without any unwarranted exaggeration. As I listened, I relished in equal measure the great refinement in the quiet passages and the imperious tuttis. At 18:46 Nelsons reaches the start of the long build-up to the symphony’s apotheosis. He controls these closing pages superbly; the music is pregnant with tension as the dynamics slowly build. The final pages are dominated, as they should be, by one last glorious outpouring of unforced majestic tone from the Leipzig brass choir.

This is a very distinguished account of the ‘Romantic’ Symphony; I enjoyed it and admired it.

It’s to be a feature of this Bruckner cycle, I understand, that music by Wagner will furnish the couplings. Here the choice falls on the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, a very apt choice, I think. We commented on this performance when we auditioned the disc recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. It’s a very good performance, well-paced and controlled by Nelsons. On repeated listening, my abiding memory is the richness of the Gewandhausorchester’s brass and lower strings.

The DG engineers have captured these performances in sound that both complements and does full justice to the music and to the burnished tones of the Gewandhausorchester. This is a fine addition to Andris Nelsons’ Brucker cycle and I look forward keenly to the next instalment, which brings the Seventh symphony.

John Quinn


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