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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor WAB 103 (1889 version ed. Nowak) [56:19]
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live 20-21 January 2005, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich.
BR KLASSIK 900189 [56:19]

This recording has appeared in a fairly recent 6 CD set from BR Klassik, and was considered “a grand heroic account, entirely satisfying and among the best committed to record” by Ralph Moore (review). Michael Cookson pipped me to be first with a review of this Third Symphony in its current single-disc edition, declaring that all concerned “excel with honours”.

This is indeed a very fine recording with a nicely detailed balance, suitably present brass and plenty of warmly expressive and rhythmically tight string playing, but at the risk of going against critical consensus, for some reason I didn’t find it quite as involving as I’d hoped. The commonly heard Nowak 1877 version differs enough from the third 1889 version heard here to make collectors want to have both, but comparisons between two recordings using these editions need not be entirely invalid to my mind. There are of course several excellent recordings around, but the one I have in mind is Herbert Blomstedt with the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig from 2010 on the MDR label, VKJK 1017.

The opening of this monumental symphony is always going to be a vital curtain-raiser for what follows. Mariss Jansons builds an effective crescendo over the first minute, and the drama in that halting, recitative-like reply is palpable. Then there’s Blomstedt, faster paced and almost breathless in that introduction: we’re perhaps reminded a little of the opening to Bach’s St John Passion. And then there’s that reply, with so much dynamic contrast and potent musical inflection: our teeth clench and we’re truly gripped. The prayer-like solemnity of the Adagio is nicely set-up by Jansons, the mood transforming from serenity to sequential Wagnerian questioning and poetic lyricism, generating a multi-layered musical landscape that always keeps us guessing. Again with Blomstedt it’s the additional intensity and more involving dynamic shaping that keeps me even more engaged, even allowing for the effect of slightly more urgent pacing.

These are qualitative comments on different editions of the same symphony and maybe I shouldn’t labour that point, but my argument is that Jansons, while preferable to many, is not necessarily the last word in this work. The London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski (review) is another excellent performance of the 1889 version. This live recorded balance doesn’t quite gel in the same way as the BR Klassik mix does. Jansons gains in heft and monumentality here where Skrowaczewski would have had an advantage in lightness of touch and transparency were it not for an even more measured Adagio than Jansons. Maris Jansons recorded Bruckner’s Third Symphony in another live performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra coupled with the Fourth Symphony released in 2009, and his timings are very similar between these two versions. The Concertgebouw is of course well-seasoned in Bruckner and is superb sounding here, though more distant and less detailed than the BRSO.

There are all kinds of comparisons to be made, but for me one of the recordings of the 1889 version of the Third Symphony that brings together Herbert Blomstedt’s detailed intensity, expressive range and variety of musical character, with spacious pacing and all of the structural and narrative clarity you could want in this huge work, is still Eugen Jochum with the Staatskapelle Dresden, now on Warner Classics (review). Mariss Jansons is indeed highly competitive and this recording is quite desirable, but to my ears being ‘very fine’ rather than ‘entirely satisfying’.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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