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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 3 in D minor, WAB 103 (third version of 1888/1889, ed. Nowak 1959)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live 20-21 January 2005, Philharmonie, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900189 [56:19]

This welcome BR Klassik release presents late Mariss Jansons’s live 2005 account of Anton Bruckner’s Third Symphony with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. I knew this recording but only now is it commercially available as a separate album. It was reserved for a small group of orchestra subscribers before the label placed it in two Bruckner box sets. In 2019 it was part of a set of nine symphonies (BR Klassik 900716) with four conductors, all established Bruckner specialists with firm connections to the orchestra: Lorin Maazel, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons and Herbert Blomstedt. In 2020 it appeared in the all-Jansons set (BR-Klassik 900718) of Symphonies 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9 (review).

With his Third Symphony, Bruckner was paying homage to Wagner. The original score contained quotations from Wagnerian music dramas, including Die Walküre, Tristan und Isolde and Tannhäuser. I have read that there also are references from Rienzi, Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger. Unsurprisingly, the original score is sometimes called the ‘Wagner’ Symphony. It is often related how in 1873 Bruckner travelled to Villa Wahnfried at Bayreuth to meet, and pay tribute to, his hero Richard Wagner, who agreed to be the dedicatee of the Third Symphony. The score was duly marked Dedicated toThe MasterRichard Wagner, in deepest respect.

Bruckner completed his original score in 1873 but had severe problems in obtaining a first performance, with obstacles at every turn. He finalised a thorough revision in spring 1877 and in December 1877 in Vienna the work received its belated première with Wiener Philharmoniker under Bruckner’s own baton. He was not a competent orchestral conductor, so sadly the performance was a disaster. Many of the audience left before the end. There followed the inevitable critical disapproval, resulting in humiliation for the composer. Bruckner had good reasons to call the Third his ‘problem child’. He subjected the score to considerable revision, notably compressing the score and removing many of the Wagner quotations. In December 1890, the first performance of this third version with the Wiener Philharmoniker under Hans Richter was an absolute triumph for Bruckner.

Bruckner’s labours produced three widely performed main versions of the Third, but there are now a number of versions in several editions accessible to conductors. The Bruckner specialist conductor Gerd Schaller summed up these options. There is the original version from 1873, the second version from 1877 and the final version of 1889 (also known as 1888/1889), and there are variants written in between. Schaller clearly relishes exploring Bruckner’s ‘creative process’. He has actually recorded two other versions of the Third: in 2011 the world premiere recording of the 1874 version (ed. Carragan, review) and in 2017 the 1890 version (ed. Schalk, review).

In this BR Klassik live 2005 recording, Jansons chose the third and final 1889 version edited by Nowak (1959). One can check the recordings of the Third made by the Bavarian Radio orchestra on the invaluable website Most of the orchestra’s conductors used the final version: the list includes Eugen Jochum, Klaus Tennstedt, Kurt Sanderling, Lorin Maazel and Marek Janowski. Georg Solti played the 1877 version (ed. Nowak), and Rafael Kubelik the 1878 version (ed. Oeser).

Jansons and his orchestra give a highly assured and intelligent interpretation, and appear to savour every note. Jansons impressively commands the core, loaded with well differentiated dramatic ideas and tightly packed dynamic contrasts, and of course those characteristic pauses. The opening movement begins expectantly with what musicologist Robert Simpson describes as ‘an awed hush’, then the solo trumpet over strings approaches eerily through the haze. There is a palpable tension, and the dramatic swelling and surging of orchestral sound is a remarkable achievement. There is a stunning build-up to the first climax while the final culmination that concludes the movement is imposing in both scale and punch. In the Adagio the dream-like and warmly reflective passages are striking; they feel persuasive and well controlled. Jansons ensures a confident growth to the climaxes that erupt with an uplifting sense of grandeur. The decrease in volume to a hushed conclusion leaves behind a curious sense of foreboding.

In the Scherzo, the strings begin softly over heavy percussion, and that creates an atmosphere of anxiety. Suddenly, delightful Austrian Ländlers appear as if from nowhere, creating a warm bucolic atmosphere, if rather short lived, and there is another Ländler in the trio. Jansons entirely understands the audacious contrasts in Bruckner’s writing: the calming mood of the Ländlers and the brass-laden, chest-puffing crescendos. In the Finale, another movement of sharp contrasts, the robust Allegro begins with an explosive force. I can never resist repeating the sections where the blithe character of the Polka is heard over the earnest chorale. Jansons thrives in Bruckner’s writing whilst generating crucial dramatic tension, and he maintains a telling tempo with an indomitable impetus.

There are no problems whatsoever with the sound quality in this live recording. There is some very minor extraneous noise which I did not find at all bothersome, and the audience applause at the conclusion has been left in. Jörg Handstein’s booklet essay The Mysterious Trumpet – Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No 3 in D minor, 3rd Version contains the essential information and is an enjoyable read.

I find each version or variant of the Third interesting but above all I favour the original from 1873 (ed. Nowak 1977), complete with its various quotes from Wagner’s music dramas. ‘Revelatory’ was my watchword after reviewing its live recording with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2008 on Profil (review). In this outstanding recording of the final version of 1889 (ed. Nowak 1959), the late Mariss Jansons and his Bavarian Radio orchestra – accomplished Brucknerians – excel with honours. In a fiercely competitive arena of Bruckner recordings, my solution to the Third Symphony quandary is to keep this final 1889 version from Jansons together with a first version of 1873, ideally Nézet-Séguin’s recording.

Michael Cookson

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