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Anton BRUCKNER (1824–1896)
Symphony No.3 in d minor (‘Wagner’ Symphony, 1889 edition, WAB103 [55:28]
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live Stiftsbasilika St. Florian, 25 September 2017. DDD.
MÜNCHNER PHILHARMONIKER 9305211251 [55:28]

Despite the Wagner connection, reflected in its common name, Bruckner’s Third Symphony has never been quite as popular, especially on record, as the prolifically recorded Fourth, the ‘Romantic’. There are so many accounts of the latter that I missed Valery Gergiev and the Munich Phil in that symphony in the first in this series of live recordings of the Bruckner symphonies, but caught up with it via the ever-useful Naxos Music Library.

Though I hadn’t associated Valery Gergiev with Bruckner – and though I’ve been disappointed with most of his recent recordings on LSO Live and Mariinsky – that Fourth earned plaudits just about all round, including from our own Michael Cookson – review. (Incidentally, the catalogue number seems to have changed in the meantime, at least in the UK, to 9305211208).

A year ago I was slightly disappointed by another live recording of the Third Symphony, from Andris Nelsons with the Leipzig Gewandhaus (DG 4797208 – review). My reservations partly concerned the choice of the final (1889) edition and partly the fact that Nelsons makes the first movement too slow and unfocused.

John Quinn did not share that reservation, finding the tempo ‘judiciously chosen’ and was less concerned by the use of the 1889 edition – review. Ditto Michael Cookson, who thought the opening movement imbued with ‘a strong sense of grandeur’ – review.

Gergiev also uses the 1889 version, a final revision made against the advice of Mahler among others and possibly not wholly by Bruckner: once again I must express my preference for one of the earlier versions, but I wouldn’t go to the stake over it.

The advantage of Gergiev’s choice of the final revision is that it allows direct comparison with Nelsons. At 21:23 Gergiev is just over two minutes faster in the first movement without sounding rushed and without losing any of the grandeur of the music. Stanisław Skrowaczewski, recorded live with the LPO on their in-house label – again the 1889 edition – demonstrates that it’s possible to take this movement slightly faster still while yet adhering to Bruckner’s multi-lingual overall directions Mehr langsam and misterioso (LPO0084 – review). As downloaded in 24/44.1 sound from eclassical.com, that LPO recording has become my benchmark for 1889 version, but Gergiev runs it pretty close throughout. 

Eugen Jochum (DG), again using the 1889 version, also takes the first movement quickly.  Though his recordings of Bruckner's choral works have won great acclaim, not everyone takes to his gear-changes in the symphonies, which sometimes make for a bumpy ride, but I remain an admirer and retain CDs of several of these DG recordings.  The Third, with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, is no longer available separately but can be found in a box set of all the symphonies (4698102, around £42 – subscribers to Naxos Music Library can sample it there).

On so many recent recordings Gergiev seems to have been trying to live down his steroidal image. Not so in the slow movement of this Bruckner Third, where his is about the fastest recording that I have heard: at 14:01 he’s over a minute faster than Skrowaczewski and almost three minutes faster than Nelsons. Does that mean that he skates over the essence of the music, marked Adagio. Bewegt, quasi Andante? I think not, though it means that Gergiev doesn’t squeeze every drop of emotion out of it, and I see that one disgruntled purchaser writing on Amazon thinks that the movement lacks Innigkeit. It’s possible to keep the music moving, as Gergiev does, without riding roughshod over it, but you might be well advised to sample this movement if you can – subscribers to Naxos Music Library will find it there, with pdf booklet and will be able to compare it with the LPO and DG accounts.

There’s little disagreement about the Ziemlich schnell short third movement among these three recordings or the Allegro finale: of the three, Skrowaczewski gives the music a little more time to breathe than the others, but I could happily live with any of them. Gergiev and his Munich players end the finale in resplendent fashion, the music looking forward to that of the Fourth, the Romantic symphony.

In summary, these are three very fine recordings, each, I think, the better for being performed live. Pressed to make a choice, my preference would still, marginally, be for the LPO, which comes at mid-price, target price £8. There’s little, if any, price advantage in downloading that in 16-bit sound, but the eclassical.com 24-bit version is worth paying a little extra for, at $15.28. (Their 16-bit at $10.19 offers the least-expensive download that I can find.)  Fans of Karl Böhm’s Vienna recording of the 1889 edition will find that coupled with his classic account of the Romantic Symphony on a Decca budget twofer - download only - or rather more expensively as a Presto special 2-CD set.

My overall preference remains for Osmo Vänskä’s recording of the 1877 edition with the BBC Scottish SO (Hyperion CDH55474, available on CD and as a download from hyperion-records.co.uk). That’s very good value at mid-price, as is Haitink’s recording with the VPO (also 1877) on a budget twofer, albeit now download only (Philips Duo 4705342, with Symphony No.8. No.3 is available on its own from 7digital.com: good value at £3.86 for mp3, but the lossless version is over-priced by comparison with the twofer).

The one fly in the ointment for some listeners, as in the case of the Munich recording of the Romantic, relates to the sound quality – another disgruntled customer on Amazon opining that the latter sounds like something 50-years old. With respect, I don’t think that person can ever have heard Klemperer’s Vox recording with the VSO, the first LP to get the whole Romantic Symphony on one disc but woefully poor in quality. (Available in a decent transfer1, but still sounding awful, from Archiphon, ARC-WU201, download only. Not to be confused with Klemperer’s later, more controlled and better-sounding 1963 EMI recording2.)

What we hear in the Munich recordings of both symphonies is the sound of a live performance in the vast space of Bruckner’s own St Florian Cathedral Abbey, the sort of sound that Bruckner would have heard there. There’s plenty of presence, without sounding muddy., but if you require clinical studio sound, look elsewhere.

I was very impressed with Gergiev’s account of this symphony. Even though it’s not my first choice, it’s already led me to stream his recording of the Romantic from Naxos Music Library and I intend also to listen to his account of the less-known No.1 which has appeared at the same time as No.3, also available from NML with pdf booklet.

1 At least, Archiphon have cured the fizzy surfaces that I recall from the Vox LP (GBY11200). It’s worth streaming, despite the hollow sound, for the sake of hearing Klemperer in full flow before he slowed down.

2 Now available in a box set of Nos. 4-9, Warner 4042962 – download only – or separately, with Wagner Siegfried Idyll, 5628152 – also download only.

Brian Wilson




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