In a recent survey of Bruckner’s Third Symphony in the BBC Radio 3 “Record Review” the presenter ultimately chose the excellent Blomstedt recording of the original 1873 version, though to my mind he might just as easily have chosen this recording, also essentially the same, with all the Wagnerian allusions intact, but using William Carragan's unpublished edition of the 1874 version. His choice was based purely upon aesthetic rather than scholarly criteria and I found myself agreeing with him that while the plethora of editions and revisions of Bruckner’s symphonies are a perennial source of interest to Bruckner musicologists and scholars, the average listener is not so much concerned with the specific version being played as the overall success and effect of that performance.
Nonetheless, the choice of edition can have a profound and discernible, if general, effect upon the listener’s perception, even if he or she cannot precisely identify where and how the differences in the variant scores occur. Hitherto, recordings of the First have often been of the 1877 Linz revision and those of the Third have employed either the Nowak edition of the original 1873 version, the 1877 revision or the1889 edition; Gerd Schaller’s choice of the 1866 version of the former and his commissioning of William Carragan’s edition of Bruckner’s first revision of the latter in 1874 were motivated by his conviction that the original score of the First sounds wilder and more furious, especially in its finale, and that the Third emerges as warmer, more opulent and sophisticated as a result of Bruckner’s elaborations, adding counterpoint and decoration. These additions are found in the twin of the score Bruckner presented and dedicated to Wagner; later in 1877 they were largely excised along with many of the Wagner quotations to produce a leaner, more concentrated version, but Carragan restores them here. There is no difference in the overall length of the scores but the earlier version is certainly grander and brassier in its climaxes. Schaller’s assertion is that these newly edited original versions are “more vigorous, more impetuous” than other editions and Carragan endorses that assessment by describing them as “more quirky and challenging”.
These recordings were made over three evenings at the Ebrach Musiksommer festival and evince all the virtues of the sound and performance apparent in the other recordings in this complete series of Bruckner’s symphonies: a spacious, reverberant, yet still detailed acoustic, superlative playing from the orchestra and Schaller’s own direct, unfussy and dedicated concentration on delivering the music just as it should sound. The performances are generally on the slower side but never drag – and of course the length of movements is sometimes attributable to the fact that in his later revisions Bruckner generally cut material, such as the repeats in the Scherzo of No. 2, which is here placed second, before the Adagio, as he first intended.
The opening march of the First is striking for its sense of purpose and direction; there is plenty of attack and an ideal balance between the competing instrumental groups, their sonorities remaining discrete and distinct, with an especially attractive contribution from the flute. The movement builds inexorably towards a grand climax and the concluding brass chords are splendidly emphatic. The Adagio is exceptionally spacious, free-flowing and lyrical; the Scherzo is first sharp, driven and obsessive, with a modernity redolent of Shostakovich, before easing into the good-humoured Trio section. Special mention must be made of the horns here, whose precision is attributable both to the players’ skill and the sensitivity of the engineers who deserve rich praise for so effectively taming the famously long reverberance of the Abbey. The finale is busy, bustling, taut and unified, featuring even longer trombone quotations from Rienzi in this original version and rising to a stirring climax.
The Second Symphony opens with a long-breathed lyricism, noble brass passages and lovely exchanges between the different wind instruments. Schaller elegantly shapes the light, bucolic rhythms of Bruckner’s rustic dances and captures the Schubertian – proto-Mahlerian? – sense of delight in Nature and the open countryside. The dynamics of the ensuing Scherzo are delicately graduated to balance the insistent, typically Brucknerian ostinato main subject and the Trio is all air and grace. The Adagio is rapt and warm, the lilting three-quarter time section before the conclusion deftly handled. The concluding four note figure in C minor from the horns evokes a serene otherworldliness of which Vaughan Williams might have been proud. The finale opens in typically restless manner but gradually settles into a joyful, celebratory mode which alternates with another pastoral idyll. Bruckner is surely scene-painting here, creating a sonic vista of Alpine mountains, valleys and village dances, which is wonderfully evoked by Schaller and his forces before exploiting the broad acoustic of the recording venue to maximum dramatic effect in the closing bars.
The majestic account of the Third Symphony is perhaps the most compelling reason to acquire this box set. The opening is perfectly executed: spacious yet urgent and intense, its concentrated pulse thrilling. Once again, the playing of the horns and trombones is exemplary and Schaller manages to maintain the organic links between the sections of the music so that Brünnhilde’s “Magic Sleep” motif is audibly reminiscent of the movement’s mysterious pulsing opening. The Adagio is flawlessly played, flowing like a mighty river flooding into a boundless ocean. The Scherzo is neat, sharp and percussive, its measured and leisurely tempi buoyed up by the sheer weight of orchestral sound. If I have a mild reservation regarding the execution of the finale, it centres on what I hear as slightly stolid pacing at first, but the yodelling melody soon sings winningly and lifts proceedings; the climax of the symphony is compelling.
Whatever recordings of these symphonies they might already own, Brucknerians everywhere will surely derive great pleasure from hearing these three original versions played so expertly and in such spacious sound.