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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103 [20:57]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 6 in A major, WAB 106 (1881) ed. Nowak [59:36]
Richard WAGNER
Parsifal: Prelude Act I, WWV 111 [12:58]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, WAB 109 (1894) ed. Nowak [58:27]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig / Andris Nelsons
rec. live, December 2018, Gewandhaus, Leipzig
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 6659 [80:33 + 71:25]

This is the fourth instalment of Andris Nelsons’ Bruckner cycle for DG. Previous releases – all of them impressive – have brought us the Third, Fourth and Seventh symphonies. Those preceding volumes all included just one symphony but here, as they have done with most of the releases in Nelsons’ Boston cycle of Shostakovich symphonies, DG issue two symphonies in tandem.

The Ninth opens very promisingly, with a proper sense of hushed mystery. At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, the first climax (2:17) is grandly imposing, as are the other climaxes which follow. The second subject (from 3:35) flows very well; Nelsons thus ensures that there’s the appropriate degree of contrast with the music that has gone before. Each time this material reappears he handles it with similar success. I like the way Nelsons manages the transition passages in this movement and the dynamic range of the orchestra, faithfully reproduced by the engineers, is mightily impressive. I was interested to see that Nelsons’ overall timing of 23:39 is some three minutes shorter than the 26:47 that Claudio Abbado takes in his unforgettable Lucerne performance (review). Nelsons may not be quite as spacious as Abbado but I found his pacing and control of the movement thoroughly convincing: he does full justice to the movement’s stature. I also like the way that inner detail is brought out without any sense of artificial highlighting.

In the Scherzo there is delicacy where required but the it was the muscularity of the big tutti passages that left the strongest impression on me. The Trio skips along swiftly and nimbly. The Adagio requires utmost concentration from the conductor and orchestra and that’s what’s supplied here. Nelsons moulds the long paragraphs very well and, as in the first movement, the contrasts are well defined. It’s in music like this that the sonority of the Gewandhausorchester is at its most impressive. This is surely the most searching movement in all Bruckner and Nelsons has its measure. He handles each episode well and welds all the episodes into a convincing structure. Perhaps one gets an even greater sense of the music’s visionary vistas from Abbado but Nelsons is not to be underestimated and he held my attention throughout. The climaxes rear up like forbidding mountains and the final one (19:32) is overwhelming, not least because Nelsons has prepared it so successfully. The coda (from 22:40) provides a serene conclusion to a very fine account of the symphony.

The Sixth also starts well. The opening of the first movement is propulsive and although Nelsons relaxes appropriately for the second group (1:48) he still maintains momentum. In this section he conducts expressively but he doesn’t linger in the way that I thought he did once or twice in his Brahms cycle, much though I admired it overall (review). I think his reading of this movement is entirely successful and the build-up to the end is superbly controlled, allowing the Leipzig brass section to make a marvellous impression.

I’m not so convinced by the second movement, though. Nelsons is very spacious indeed, taking 19:45 overall. When I looked out a few other versions at random from my collection only Karajan and Tintner come close to this – and neither of them exceeds 19 minutes. By contrast, Bernard Haitink in his magisterial live recording from 2017 (review), only takes 15:19 but never does he seem rushed. In passing, I was interested to go back to Haitink’s first recording of the work, made under studio conditions in 1970. There he takes 17:25 over the Adagio; who says conductors get slower with age? One passage that caught my ear in this Nelsons reading comes between 5:43 and 7:47. Here, it seems to me that Nelsons is dangerously slow; the music loses too much momentum. The same passage in the 2017 Haitink reading (from 4:19) is much better handled, I think. The Dutch maestro makes the music suitably solemn but at his slightly swifter speed the music still had forward impetus; it sounds like a slow march, which is surely appropriate at this juncture. Overall, I think Nelsons’ approach is just too much of a good thing, though there’s no doubting that the performance is very beautiful indeed. To my ears, the climaxes seem a touch ponderous. I think that if I’d been in the Gewandhaus to experience this performance live I’d have been well impressed but I’m not sure how well it will stand up to the scrutiny of repeated listening.

The rest of the symphony goes much better. There’s plenty of dynamism and contrast in the Scherzo. Perhaps the Trio (2:48) is moulded a bit self-consciously in comparison to Haitink’s more straightforward – and idiomatic – way with the music. The finale opens with all the drive you could wish for. The second subject (1:44) is done gracefully. When the material of the opening returns (4:15), Nelsons’ approach is once again suitably animated. Shortly thereafter (5:40 – 7:40) there’s a much more relaxed passage and when I first heard it, though I admired the phrasing, I wondered if Nelsons was slightly overplaying his hand. However, on reflection my first reaction was wrong and, furthermore, I was subsequently reminded that Haitink is no less expressive at this point. Nelsons handles the rest of the movement very skilfully and the conclusion is very exciting as Nelsons brings the symphony home in a blaze of golden brass tone with the return of the work’s opening theme but this time in major-key Technicolor. Others may not share my reservation about the slow movement, which is superbly played in its own right, and the rest of this account of the Sixth is very successful.

Andris Nelsons plans to couple all his Bruckner symphony performances with short pieces by Wagner. The Sixth is paired with Siegfried Idyll. This is played with great finesse and conducted affectionately – and at times with urgency. This is a very beautiful performance. The Prelude to Act I of Parsifal complements the Ninth to perfection. In this spacious and refined performance, I relished the glowing richness of orchestral tone, especially the burnished sound of the Leipzig brass choir.

The recordings themselves have been entrusted, once again, to Polyhymnia International BV. Their engineers have done a fine job, reproducing the sound of the orchestra marvellously. There’s a fine richness to the overall sound, plenty of inner detail is audible in an expertly balanced sound picture and the dynamic range is admirable with climaxes opening out in a most pleasing way.

Anyone following this Andris Nelsons Bruckner cycle can invest with confidence.

John Quinn

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