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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Prelude to Act I (1867) [10:28]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 2 in C minor (1877 version, ed. William Carragan, 2007) [58:10]
Symphony No 8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Leopold Nowak) [81:57]
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, Gewandhaus, 3-8 December 2019 (Prelude & Symphony No. 2) & 4-6 September 2019 (Symphony No. 8)
Reviewed as downloaded from a 16-bit press preview
Pdf booklet included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 9834 [2 CDs: 150:00]

Given the number of distinguished Bruckner cycles out there, do we really need this Nelsons/LGO one? Well, it would seem so, if my colleagues’ enthusiastic responses to No 4, No 7 and Nos 6 & 9 are anything to go by. Then again, one could ask the same question about this conductor’s ongoing Shostakovich project with the Boston Phil (DG). The difference is that while I’m unfamiliar with Nelsons’ Bruckner, I’ve reviewed all his DSCH to date. And what a splendid traversal it’s turning out to be, first-rate performances made even more desirable by superb engineering. I would like to think his Bruckner is of the same ilk, although I get the impression he’s developed a special rapport with the BSO that accounts, in part at least, for the quality of their remarkable music-making. I can’t vouch for his relationship with the LGO just yet, but the last time I encountered the orchestra, in Mahler 2 with Riccardo Chailly, they were on top form (Accentus). All of which augurs well for this pairing of Bruckner 2 and 8.

But first, the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It gets a decent outing, but I do miss the energy and brilliance of George Szell, not to mention the pomp and pageantry that Klaus Tennstedt finds in this glorious curtain-raiser. Nelsons is no stranger to this repertoire, so I was surprised by his comparative lack of urge and amplitude here. The LGO certainly play well, with inner voices nicely rendered, but otherwise no-one seems fully engaged at this point. And while I applaud the engineers for eking out so much detail, I question the jumbo-sized timps, especially in those thrilling climaxes. Yes, weight is required, but not when it overwhelms the orchestra.

For years I held fast to the notion that Bruckner’s early symphonies were only of peripheral interest, the composer finally hitting his stride in the Fourth. Then I came across Gerd Schaller’s Philharmonia Festiva recordings of Nos 1-3, which triggered what I can only describe as a Damascene conversion on my part. (Here’s Ralph Moore’s review of that enlightening set.) I was particularly taken with Schaller’s fresh, always invigorating take on the Second. He opts for the 1872 version of the score, as edited by William Carragan, whereas Nelsons prefers Leopold Nowak’s edition of the 1877 version, his errors and anomalies corrected by Carragan. The two versions are structured as follows: Allegro - Scherzo - Andante - Finale (Schaller), and Moderato - Andante - Scherzo - Finale (Nelsons). Movement timings vary, too. And while I would agree with Ralph’s assertion that different versions of the same Bruckner symphony will affect one’s perception of the piece as a whole, I suspect most listeners will simply want a reading that works. In that sense, performing styles and, perhaps, the recording itself, are more likely to be the deal-breakers.

Alas, Nelsons and the LGO don’t get off to a good start, their opening movement something of a ramble. At best, the music-making seems dutiful, rather than inspired. By contrast, Schaller’s band plays with a poise and passion that tweaks the ear and lifts the heart. Tempos and tempo relationships are well judged, too, which makes for a very convincing and coherent narrative. Shape, structure and a sense of purpose elude Nelsons at every turn. Not only that, his performance is ill-served by a close, bass-heavy sound that obscures essential detail. (Profil’s crisp, airy recording is far more revealing of the composer’s craft.) What follows confirms my suspicions, that Nelsons lacks the proselytizing zeal required to show this symphony at its best. To be fair, though, it’s a potential hazard with all complete cycles, lesser works not always getting the care and attention they deserve.

Schaller really believes in the piece, and it shows in every bar. It helps that he has a light touch and a keen ear for Bruckner’s timbres and textures. In this company, Nelsons’ performing style seems very traditional - old-fashioned, even - and that’s not helpful in music of such animation and transparency. Elsewhere, Nelsons and the LGO fail to shine where they should. For instance, those highly atmospheric horn passages sound oddly contrived, whereas Schaller invests them with a natural loveliness. Such epiphanies are a reminder - if it were needed - of the many qualities that make Schaller’s performance so special. Engaged - and engaging - to the last, he then delivers a superbly structured finale, the proportionate, cleanly articulated timps a joy to hear. To put it bluntly, Schaller blows his rival into the proverbial weeds with this one. That said, Nelsons, his players and the DG engineers still have a chance to redeem themselves in the epic symphony that follows.

II’ve never been able to decide which is the greater work, the Seventh or the Eighth. Give me Sergiu Celibidache’s No 7, filmed with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1992 (Euroarts)/a> or Yakov Kreizberg’s, recorded with the Wiener Symphoniker in 2004 (Pentatone) and it’s no contest. But when I revisit the No 8 that Karajan did with the BP in 1975 (DG) or Günter Wand’s, recorded live with the same orchestra in 2001 (RCA Red Seal), I’m back where I started. Of the more recent Bruckner 8s to come my way, I was delighted - but not at all surprised - by Zubin Mehta’s 2012 performance (Berliner Philharmoniker, included in a multi-conductor Bruckner box released in 2019. CD buyers will be disappointed to discover that at the time of writing - February 2021 - none of the recordings in that set are available separately. However, individual performances can be downloaded from the BP’s online shop.

Clearly, Nelsons has a mountain to climb here. Does he succeed? Well, his account of the Allegro moderato is most encouraging; it may not be as mysterious as some at the very start, but otherwise this opener is persuasively paced and structured. Indeed, the conductor seems very confident of his route to the summit, his players, sensing that certainty, similarly focused on the task ahead. What a pity the sound still lacks essential ‘air’, but if the performance goes well that won’t be a deal-breaker. That said, the broad, deep soundstage provided for Mehta is near ideal, with climaxes effortlessly caught. In particular, this veteran conductor really brings out those echt-Brucknerian sonorities; then again, we are talking about the Berliner Philharmoniker here. Nevertheless, Nelsons’ opener, freighted with promise, is a good, strong one. Ditto his account of the Scherzo: Allegro, which is both taut and propulsive, those vaulting passages as thrilling as any I know. All that’s missing is the Wand-like loftiness that Mehta brings to this great score. That, of course, is born of vast experience. Too much to ask for at this stage of Nelsons’ career, but despite the occasional misstep I’ve absolutely no doubt he is destined for great things.

Having emerged from the foothills as it were, Nelsons takes a tumble. His Adagio has a slightly cloying character - a self-conscious ‘beauty’, perhaps - that’s at odds with what’s gone before. In many ways it reminds me of the more tender moments in his performance of the Second; there, too, there’s a moulded quality to the music that I find most perplexing. Switch to Mehta and how lovely, how natural, this movement sounds. It all seems so effortless really, the Philharmoniker’s horns in a league of their own. Nelsons recovers somewhat in that glorious Finale, but, in the end, he’s denied the summit. A real shame, as it all started so well.

An unconvincing Second and an almost-but-not-quite account of the Eighth; disappointing sound throughout.

Dan Morgan



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