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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphonies 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 & 9
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
Rec. live 2005-2017
BR KLASSIK 900718 [6 CDs: 384:48]

Had Mariss Jansons lived longer, this would have become a complete set of Bruckner symphonies for BR Klassik; as it is, the only one missing from the last, seven, so-called “mature” symphonies is No. 5, which was planned. No. 6 has not previously been released on this label and No. 3 has not hitherto been available separately, but was instead part of a composite box set of all nine symphonies issued by BR Klassik (900716) featuring four different conductors, Maazel (Nos. 1 and 2), Haitink (Nos. 5 and 6), Jansons (Nos. 3, 4, 7 and 8, the same recordings as per here) and Blomstedt (No. 9), all directing the same orchestra as in this new compilation, the BRSO. One of Jansons’ final recordings was of No. 6 with the BPO, issued as part of a box set on their own label and reviewed by John Quinn. He gives it high praise, but qualifies that with some reservations regarding the first movement and ultimately he preferred Haitink’s recording with the BRSO, whom Jansons directs here in this set under review.

Jansons died in late 2019 and the BRSO posthumously awarded him the Karl Amadeus Hartmann medal in January 2020; this set is BR Klassik’s tribute to him. He also made live recordings of Bruckner symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, released on their own label; I favourably reviewed two of those. However, good as they were, I think these performances here might be superior. I have previously reviewed Nos 8 (review) and 9 (review) and found them both to be admirable, so I refer you to those reviews for more detailed responses.

I love the Third Symphony and am always immediately captivated by any good performance of that ostinato opening; Jansons captures its menace and tension admirably. The BRSO respond sensitively to his application of rubato within the framework of the “Bruckner rhythm” and produce sumptuous sound; the brass in particular are simply magnificent. That mood of taut concentration is sustained throughout, never letting the listener’s attention flag. The lovely Adagio first flows like molten gold then the switch in tempo to three-quarter-time is deftly handled, as are the typical pauses, before the final section, with its alternation between orchestral carillons and moments of quiet repose, builds to a serene conclusion. The Scherzo is attacked con gusto, establishing just the right sense of suppressed hysteria, contrasting beautifully with the galumphing, rustic waltz of the Trio. The finale is a sure-footed joy from start to finish and the whole is a grand heroic account, entirely satisfying and among the best committed to record. The audience, which has been virtually silent throughout, roars its approval.

Building on the excellence of the Jansons’ Third Symphony, his No. 4, recorded three and a half years later, is likewise very fine, even if it does not, perhaps, rival Karajan’s and Böhm’s. The late Terry Barfoot reviewed it admiringly earlier this year, but had some minor reservations regarding its sound quality in comparison with Jansons’ Amsterdam SACD recording, also made in 2008, and suggested that “while this Bavarian performance is not as dramatic as some…. it remains an impressive testament by one of the great conductors of recent times.” I broadly agree with his review and refer you to it for more detail. The opening is indeed as atmospheric as one could wish, the solo horn playing flawlessly over shimmering, tremolando strings, validating its sobriquet ‘Romantic’. This is a big, imposing, spacious account, usually characterised by momentum, but there are undoubtedly moments here when Jansons flirts with ponderousness. As a result, this is the slowest in the catalogue of recordings of this edition and for some will be a bridge too far with regard to tempi, but the coherence of the direction and virtuosity of the orchestral playing go a long way towards nullifying objections. There is plenty of spring and fluidity in the Scherzo, contrasting the martial brilliance of its outer “hunt” sections with the bucolic calm of the central Trio. The finale is especially thrilling and I approve of the illegitimate addition of the cymbal clash at the first climax simply because, vulgar or not, it lends tremendous drama. The whole movement packs an enormous punch and its conclusion is breath-takingly grand.
I refer you to John Quinn’s review of the Sixth Symphony as per the opening paragraph above, as, again, I broadly agree with its findings. Given that Jansons generally favours steady tempi in Bruckner, his choice of speed in response to Bruckner’s vague instruction of “Majestoso” is surprisingly quick and presents some kind of solution to the problem posed by it; he pushes ahead but ultimately his timing for this movement is only very slighter faster than those of Haitink and Karajan, for example, and it all hangs together. I have seen his approach variously described elsewhere as “propulsive”, “muscular” and “visceral”; that seems right to me and the conclusion is electrifying. Where Jansons is again considerably swifter than Karajan by some three minutes is in the Adagio but he is only marginally faster than Haitink and there is no sense of undue haste. There is a lovely depth to the low strings underpinning the oboe solo lament and the whole orchestra plays with glowing, aureate tone. The Gesangsperiode here is as beautiful as any I know and the concluding two minutes are meltingly lovely, offering repose and consolation, the octave drop onto the thrice repeated tonic F chord is like a farewell kiss. Jansons’ insistence on avoiding any indulgent lingering informs the driven march of the Scherzo and once again the extreme dynamic variation enhances its impact. In a pattern which reverses that of the Scherzo in the Fourth Symphony, it is the Trio here which uses hunting horns – again, flawlessly intoned. The finale keeps veering madly between a frenetic gallop and an ambling Andante; Jansons handles both with equal aplomb before allowing the lovely third theme, echoing the oboe lament of the second movement, to unfold gracefully; you feel that he is in complete command of every facet of this score and handles every change of mood and pace seamlessly.

I have heard Jansons’ recording of the Seventh Symphony described as “sumptuous” and I am disinclined to contest that adjective; the depth and richness of the playing are apparent from its opening bars. Slightly brisker speeds than some of the more celebrated versions offset any risk of “gluiness” and once again Janson’s finely gauged graduation of dynamics create melodic light and shade. The famous, opening tune which Bruckner described as a “complete, divinely given melodic whole” is given full Romantic weight to contrast with the jaunty, almost aggressive octave theme and the conclusion to the movement attains full “homage to Götterdämmerung” mode before the Adagio which is Bruckner’s extended tribute to “The Master”, again graced by two musical subjects of heart-rending emotion and executed here with deep affection, amplified by mellow Wagner tubas. The relationship between the pounding first subject of the Scherzo and the wistful Trio is judged to a nicety before an infectiously animated finale in which the orchestra’s virtuosity does not preclude their playing with raw energy. This is an account to match any other in the catalogue, including those by Karajan and Eichhorn, my firm favourites.

To my ears, the sound throughout this set is impeccable, replicating the resonance of the cathedral spaces beloved of Bruckner without sacrificing clarity; the audiences are silent and the only minor distractions are the faint and intermittent vocalisations from the conductor – which are nowhere near as intrusive as some other conductors’ singalong habits. Faithfully replicating the dynamic range and contrasts called for in Bruckner’s scores was one of Jansons’ fortes, and that gift emerges here with particular prominence, as the BRSO is so adept and playing softly.

Jansons’ Bruckner legacy might be only partial - the absence of a recording of No. 5 is especially regrettable - but what we have provides ample testimony to his gifts as a conductor of these magnificent symphonies.

Ralph Moore

Symphony No. 3 in D minor WAB 103 (1889 version ed. Nowak) [56:19]
rec. 19 March 2005.
(Not previously available separately)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major WAB 104 (1878/80 version ed. Nowak) [72:10]
rec.16-28 November 2008.
Symphony No. 6 in A major WAB106 (1881 version ed. Nowak) [54:08]
rec. 22 & 23 January 2015. (First commercial release)
Symphony No. 7 in E major WAB 107 (1885 version ed. Nowak) [64:53]
rec. 4 November 2007, Großer Saal des Musikvereins, Vienna
Symphony No 8 in C minor WAB 108 (1890 version ed. Nowak) [80:08]
rec. 13-18 November 2017.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor WAB 109 (1894 Originalfassung ed. Nowak) [57:10]
13-17 January 2017.
All live recordings made in the Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, except for No. 7.

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