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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 3 in D minor, WAB 103 (Original version, 1873; ed. Nowak)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 17-21 June, 2019, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Reviewed as downloaded with pdf booklet from  
BIS SACD BIS-2464 [56:03]  

Anton Bruckner suffered from enough neglect of his compositions during his own lifetime as it was, but then after his death near the end of the 19th Century, with Post-Romanticism beginning to transition into the 20th Century and other styles of composition (Neo-Classicism, Impressionism, etc.) the neglect only became even worse. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th Century that his works started being re-discovered, possibly given some help by the parallel Mahler revival that was taking place as well.

During this “revival”, as it were, an oft-held line of thought in attempting to come to grips with his works was that Bruckner was a professional organist during his lifetime, therefore, naturally, the “best” way to understand his music was to think of it in terms of organ music that has been dressed up with a sophisticated transcription for orchestra. Or so went the line of thought.

This frequently resulted in his symphonies being thought of, not as thematic or melodic material being subjected to sonata form interaction and development, but rather more as a series of episodic blocks of sound with a pseudo-tune tacked on. The phrase “cathedrals of sound” was used on more than one occasion in attempting to describe Bruckner’s music.

Performances would dutifully move from one episode to the next (often pausing, as an organist would, to change the stops for the next section), and the older subscribers in the audience would frequently look at their watches or just leave, while the younger segment would rub their hands and lick their lips in anticipation of the next inevitable brass outburst. There was a particularly popular approach adopted in a certain American Midwest city where the audience came to enjoy seeing the string/woodwind sections get virtually blown off the front of the stage, rather like fans looking forward to the next fight in a hockey game, I suppose. But I digress.

In recent years, a rather sweeping re-evaluation of Bruckner’s music has begun. Some conductors around the world are beginning to think of Bruckner’s music (the symphonies in particular) in terms of thematic/melodic interaction and development. With this new approach, we no longer move stiffly from episode to episode, hoping that the next episode will be the one with the next brass outburst. Rather, a throughgoing flow of lyrical (dare I even say “tuneful”?) material begins coming to the surface, with the result that Bruckner’s structural coherence, which is, truthfully, often quite sophisticated, is finally allowed to come to full bloom.

One such advocate of this approach is Manfred Honeck, currently Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. When I first heard his recording of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony (Reference Recordings FR-713 SACD, review) a year or so ago, it struck me that Bruckner’s writing reminded me in certain ways of Antonín Dvořák. Not that Bruckner is to be relegated to a copy or a shadow of Dvořák by any means, but just simply that there was an audibly continuous flow of melodic material, such as could be expected in a Dvořák composition. Honeck was allowing Bruckner’s music to “sing” in a way that I had never experienced before. It was quite a renaissance moment for me, to say the least.

So I was rather eager to listen to this new recording of the Third Symphony from Thomas Dausgaard. There are numerous other Dausgaard recordings in my collection, and every single one of them will seize your attention, demanding your unwavering concentration because they are all uniformly so intense and enlivened on a bar-by-bar basis. There never seems to be a dull moment in a Thomas Dausgaard recording. BIS Records offers this one as a hybrid SACD which can also play as a standard CD, or there are also download options, including hi-res stereo and multi-channel surround sound. For this review, I listened to the multi-channel surround sound download.

Happily enough, Dausgaard takes an approach that is, in some ways, similar to Honeck’s. The comments I offer here could equally apply, in a general way, to his previous recordings of Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony (BIS Records SACD BIS-1829) and 6th Symphony (BIS Records SACD BIS-2404, review), so he is being consistent about his approach to this music. His tempi are on the brisk side, which, for listeners who have spent their lives accustomed to the lumbering “cathedral of sound” approach, might seem a little jarring at first. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that this is necessary in order to establish a forward impetus so that the symphony can “sing”, as in the Honeck 4th recording.

The result of this for my own listening experience is a level of interest and captivation with the music that I have to confess has been rare for me in times past with Bruckner’s music. I find myself focusing on the through-flowing thematic material and how we are consequently progressing through Bruckner’s amazingly detailed formal structures.

The brass moments are still there, to be sure, but in more of a tuneful way than would have been the case in decades past, while the other parts of the orchestra are given a level of prominence in Dausgaard’s overall balance that greatly enhances Bruckner’s contrapuntal writing, as well as making the recording a highly-active listening experience. Even within the context of the brisker tempi, Dausgaard seems to be encouraging the orchestra to make an effort to shape the melodic lines so that they have a coherent, forward-moving momentum, rather than just sounding like a nice set of notes that have been randomly strung together.

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra has firmly established itself as one of the world’s best orchestras, going back to the days when Andrew Litton was their Music Director. I am quite pleased to find in this recording, as well as other recent Bergen recordings that, under their current music director, Edward Gardner, the level of excellence established by Litton has not dropped off one iota. Their performance in this recording is superb on every level, with each section contributing individually to an overall beautifully controlled tone quality. There is plenty of muscle in the sound to allow stronger passages to have all the impact they need, while the quieter passages are given a delicacy and poise that is a sheer pleasure to hear.

The acoustic environment of Grieg Hall seems to be a big plus for them in this regard as well. The BIS engineers have done a superb job of capturing this performance in top-notch, state-of-the-art sound. There is plenty of clarity to allow us to fully experience Bruckner’s most densely-structured contrapuntal writing, while at the same time giving us enough perspective and bloom to be able to enjoy the orchestra’s overall sonority as well as to appreciate the symphony’s biggest moments with the most power. In short, it’s the best seat in the house.

There is one other aspect of this recording that I have not discussed yet, not because it’s a minor point by any means, but on the contrary, because it’s so important that I want this to be the last point that lingers in your mind as you reach the end of this review. Dausgaard has chosen to record the original 1873 version of this 3rd Symphony, the “Wagner” Symphony. I will not make this review any more cumbersome than it already is by giving you a detailed account and description of the differences between the various versions of this symphony, but I do want to point out that the booklet notes, written by Horst Scholz, do an excellent job of giving us a thorough historical background for the odyssey this symphony has been on for the last 150 years or so, plus there is also an enthusiastically written note from Thomas Dausgaard himself regarding his choice of the 1873 version for this recording.

The argument used by “well-meaning” acquaintances of Bruckner’s was that the symphony was too overloaded, that it needed to be trimmed down. (I am very pleased to note that Gustav Mahler thought this argument was rubbish, that the symphony was just fine as originally conceived.) This trimming-down resulted in the 3rd Symphony having more versions than any other of Bruckner’s symphonies, confusingly enough. Like Rachmaninoff, Bruckner’s music had to endure decades of mutilation and second-class status in the repertoire before people like Thomas Dausgaard began realizing that, in fact, Bruckner was no fool and knew precisely what he was about.

The old, plodding “cathedral of sound” approach could very well have made the sheer volume of material in this symphony seem unwieldy and tiresome, but when performed with more proper melodically flowing tempi such as we have on this recording, the music’s organizational coherence and detail of construction as originally conceived by Bruckner finally become apparent so that we can now enjoy this masterpiece in all of its unabridged glory.

In the course of writing this review, I had the Karajan-Berlin (Deutsche Grammophon 477 7580, review) and Janowski-Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Pentatone PTC5186520 SACD, review) recordings on hand for the purpose of comparison. Unfortunately, they both use the trimmed-down 1889 version, and the differences between the two versions are so enormous that a “comparison” is not even truly, validly possible. Just for one example, the fourth movement of the 1889 version is 495 bars long, where in the original 1873 version on this Dausgaard-Bergen recording, the finale is 746 bars long. Such a vast difference is nothing short of staggering. Those missing 251 bars had to wait over a century before they were finally permitted to be heard. And that’s just the fourth movement’s difference.

There have been only a few recordings made of the 1873 version, the first being by Eliahu Inbal (Apex 2564600052) in the early 1980s if memory serves correctly. But as far as I can find in the catalogue, this is the only recording currently available of the 1873 version in hi-res or multi-channel sound. When we put that together with the sheer excellence of the overall recording in every facet, I would have to say that Bruckner fans should add this recording to their library as quickly as possible. Just speaking for myself, I can assure you that I will personally be returning to this recording many times in the future, and thoroughly enjoying it.

David Phipps

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