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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 (1877 version)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Rec December 1995, Philharmonie, Berlin (live recording)
WARNER ELATUS 2564 60533 2 [59.38]

In whichever version (1873, 1877 or 1889) Bruckner’s Third is a marvellous symphony. In this reviewer’s opinion this was the first of the symphonies to proclaim the full range and power of his genius. Daniel Barenboim, in common with an increasing number of interpreters, chooses the 1877 revision, which differs most markedly from the first version by having various cuts in the finale.

Traversing the finale’s structure is therefore a particular challenge, and it is one that this performance succeeds in making successfully. The choices of tempi are well made, and though one may cavil at the occasional detail, the general effect is altogether commendable, so too the long-term vision. Barenboim is an experienced hand in this repertoire and it shows. Likewise the balancing of orchestral sections is effective and sometimes penetrating in its observation of detail. For example, the lyrical gesangperiode of the first movement can seldom have been articulated with more loving care and attention, yet always with a feeling of the utmost spontaneity.

As a Bruckner acoustic the Philharmonie in Berlin has been captured inconsistently, but it sounds well here, so all praise to the producer and engineer, Martin Fouqué and Eberhard Sengpiel. This is a live performance and the audience are particularly self-effacing and well behaved; would that it were always so. The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is quite wonderful, with sure tone and complete accuracy. But above all the quality of the dynamic range is remarkable. This is not to be taken for granted, and owes something to the recording as well. Both the pianissimo playing and the climaxes are striking in their effect.

In Bruckner capturing the right sound counts for so much, and for rather more than might be the case with other composers. Phrases need the chance to breathe, and the string sound needs to expand resonantly. Rarely can this venue have contributed so effectively to recorded performances, as witnessed by the magnificent climax that releases the recapitulation.

As far as the interpretation is concerned, there are some questions also, most notably in the last two movements. The tempo in the third movement scherzo is on the slow side, and some might call it sluggish, but any doubts are redressed in the finale, where Barenboim handles the intricacies of the structure with great cunning and true understanding.

If in the final analysis Bernard Haitink’s 1990 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (on Philips) is to be preferred, in truth there is little to choose. And Barenboim has an advantage in terms of price. It really is a memoir of a special occasion, and ‘special occasion’ is a description that is apposite as far as any performance of a Bruckner symphony is concerned.

Terry Barfoot


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