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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin – Prelude [9:17]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, ‘Romantic’ WAB 104 (1878/80 version – ed. Nowak)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. ‘live’ May 2017, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig

This is the second instalment in the Bruckner symphony cycle that Andris Nelsons is making with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and all the signs are that this will be a modern cycle of distinction, despite the youth of the conductor; there is no indication of Nelsons lacking the maturity or experience to do justice to Bruckner’s symphonies.

It was a nice idea to pair each symphony with an orchestral number from Wagner’s operas. The performance of the Prelude to Lohengrin is a splendid curtain-raiser, being grand and mysterious like so much if the ensuing symphony, each progression sounding perfectly weighted and building to a magnificent peroration. The strings in Thielemann’s comparable modern live performance with the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin might be more delicate, and his brass even more imposing, but this is perhaps a subtler, less overtly theatrical and more finely gauged account. Even better than both, despite the hiss, is Kempe in his famous 1962-3 recording with the VPO, who is first more ethereal, then finds even greater grandeur in his orchestral climax, with brass that snarls and strings that float, but no-one will find Nelsons disappointing.

The modern Leipzig orchestra makes a more homogenised sound than of yore but what a beautiful sound it is. Everything seems right in this first movement: the opening string tremolando is full of contained tension, the horn mellow, the development urgent and propulsive, before Nelsons relaxes into the bucolic second subject at just the right tempo. He has the gift of creating a sense of drama and expectation without resorting to bombast or agogic distortion, Tutti passages blaze with conviction and the climactic chorale ten minutes in is simply magnificent, contrasting with the wistful, searching passage which immediately succeeds it.

Some might find the start of the second movement to be a little careful and even stilted; I would like more sense of flow, although Nelsons moulds phrases beautifully and the orchestra’s soft playing ravishes the ear. The return if the first subject nine minutes in is magical; the melody slides and as it is handed from one instrumental group to another over a cushion of pizzicato strings allows each to demonstrate its virtuosity at low volume. The contrast with the weighty, majestic climax of the movement is telling – this is great playing and conducting.

The “hunt” Scherzo is superb, the brass in perfect balance and not a single blip or blat. The trio is refined but still rustic in character and there is always electricity in the air.

The finale can fragment under direction which is too impulsive or erratic but Nelsons maintains a long view, keeping his powder dry for the drive toward final apotheosis without ever sacrificing tension. The great waves and lulls in the music come and go, and the listener is uniformly gripped throughout by Nelsons’ ability to link one section to another. The concluding three minutes of the final movement constitute one of the most thrilling and glorious passages in all Bruckner; Nelsons triumphantly unveils its mystery and power, building inexorably with a sure touch and a mounting sense of the numinous.

This is undoubtedly one of the best accounts of this symphony ever recorded and certainly the finest of recent years.

Ralph Moore
[This review reproduced here by kind permission of the Bruckner Journal]

Previous review: John Quinn



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