Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung, WWV 86D Act 3: Siegfried's Funeral March [9:13]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E Major, WAB 107 (ed. Haas) [67:35]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. live March 2018, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 8494 [76:47]
It is probably a bad idea to start with the opening track on this disc – though I can imagine a lot of people liking this performance for all the wrong reasons. Siegfried’s Funeral Music (though it’s called a “march” here) from Act III of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung is given one of the most gruesome performances in recent memory. The grinding tempo at the beginning enervates the music of virtually all dramatic intensity – something which this music has coursing through its veins from virtually the first note the orchestra plays. I can’t be certain that Andris Nelsons hasn’t performed Götterdämmerung complete, but he plays this music as if he has been nowhere near the opera. Taken on its own, it is less what Sir Donald Tovey once described as a “bleeding chunk” - and more a lifeless stump.
Compare Giuseppe Sinopoli with the Vienna Philharmonic - just one of many very fine recordings of this music - from the Lucerne Festival in 1996, in an absolutely devastating performance of this piece, and it’s hard to believe Nelsons takes the approach he does. Sir Charles Mackerras, live in Sydney in 1973 in a concert for the opening of the opera house, takes an identical 9’12 – but what intensity Mackerras brings to this music, even if the Sydney Symphony Orchestra are clearly overwhelmed by Wagner’s demands, especially in the horns. What’s so peculiar about it all is the erratic rubato Nelsons thinks this music needs: it begins like a Spruce Goose of a performance, then soars magnificently, and proceeds to plummet like a stone. It’s a pity, because the playing is rather splendid (and it doesn’t get more splendid than the growling bass playing at 4’42). It’s also very vividly recorded with a whole host of instrumental detail uncovered that often goes unnoticed, from beautifully transparent harps, to luxuriously expansive, and plaintive, woodwind phrasing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this orchestra play Wagner better than they do here – it’s really quite exceptionally beautifully done but this absolutely isn’t a performance about drama, much less about Wagner.
The Leipzig Gewandhausorchester has a particularly strong tie to Anton Bruckner’s Seventh having given the work’s première on 30th December 1884 in Leipzig under its then conductor, Arthur Nikisch. Another conductor strongly associated with the orchestra, and, of course, Bruckner was Wilhelm Furtwängler. He would first conduct Bruckner’s Seventh in Leipzig in his third concert with the orchestra on 12th October 1922, just over a year after he had first conducted them in August 1921. Although all Furtwängler’s extant complete recordings of the Seventh are from 1949, or later, we, at least, have an idea of how he conducted this segmented work. Any one of his three performances show an awareness of flexible phrasing, a long, single arc that seems to stitch together quite seamlessly the symphony’s rather obvious joins and a clear sense of where the music is going.
None of the characteristics of a Furtwängler Bruckner Seventh really apply to this new one by Andris Nelsons, however. It lacks flexibility, it isn’t taut, it lingers when it should have urgency and it isn’t cemented together. As with the Wagner on track one, it’s the linear shape of the music which is a problem – there really isn’t any, in fact, which is death in a Bruckner symphony. The Adagio is a real problem, in my view. This has to be one of the most shapeless, distorted, musically ambiguous performances I’ve heard for a very long time. It should be said that Bruckner’s tempos for this movement are complex, but Nelsons has, I think, taken them quite literally so the music travels less in an arc and more in fits and stops; and when Nelsons is slow, he is slow, so when he adopts a faster tempo cracks begin to appear in the structure (a good example is between 8’45 and 10’50). I don’t think he’s any more successful in the final movement either where a lesser orchestra would almost certainly have struggled with some of his tempos – his demands on the Leipzig horns are extremely testing indeed. Only the Scherzo is a success, though even here it’s a close call when Nelsons almost falls into the trap of turning the Trio into something it isn’t.
There’s no question that the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester play superbly on this disc – quite how any orchestra can play Wagner this beautifully when the performance is so dull is a question I’m still asking myself – but musically the disc is a questionable enterprise.
Previous review: Ralph Moore