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Bruckner syms 4862083
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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor WAB 101 (Vienna version 1890/91 ed. Günter Brosche) [55:04]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major WAB 105 (Original version 1878 ed. Nowak) [74:37]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1882)
Tristan und Isolde WWV 90 (1859): Prelude to Act 1 [10:35]; Liebestod (Mild und leise, wie er lächelt) [6:57]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 21 May 2021, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4862083 [72:36 + 74:37]

The decision whether to perform or record the original “Linz” or the so-called “Vienna” version of Bruckner’s First Symphony seems always to arouse irreconcilable passions in the breasts of the composer’s devotees; I am rather inclined to go with, and enjoy, whichever a conductor chooses and, in this case, Nelsons has opted for Bruckner’s later obsessive tinkerings. The most direct comparison is with Gerd Schaller’s excellent account, reviewed here. Nelsons is a little more leisurely but like Schaller has a crack orchestra and delivers a weighty account. The notes quote Nelsons: “It surprises me that this inventive composition, which evidently withstood the power of Bruckner’s self-critical gaze, is not performed more frequently.” While the First might not have the draw of the mature symphonies, played with this conviction and power, it strongly advertises its claim to be more often performed; the last two minutes of the opening movement in particular are gripping. The Adagio is hardly among Bruckner’s greatest and emerges as a little stolid and meandering here; I feel that Schaller maintains a firmer, more propulsive grip over the music but the majesty of the execution is not in doubt and, as with the first movement, the last two minutes are especially grand. The Scherzo is an ear-pounding romp and the finale sustains that momentum although it is hard to convey a sense of line and continuity with such jerky, episodic material as Bruckner assembles. As recordings of this symphony go, however, this is surely as good as any and yet again, in its closing stages Nelsons generates a frenetic charge reminiscent of Tchaikovsky in his most agitated mode, making one heck of a row.

Nonetheless, the success of this recording must depend heavily upon the ensuing masterwork – a favourite among Bruckner cognoscenti. For some reason, however, this performance strikes me as prosaic and even plodding, despite the sheen of the orchestral playing; it never seems to gain much inner tension or propulsion; contrary to some reviews I have read which praise its flow, I find it oddly stilted and lacking in continuity – devoid of Innigkeit. The phrasing in the Adagio is peculiarly staccato and simply does not hold my attention – indeed, it seems interminable and shapeless. Nelsons, is still a comparatively young man; perhaps he has not yet acquired the insight which age and experience conferred upon the greatest Bruckner interpreters; I have no other explanation for the peculiar blankness of his account here. The Scherzo is more engaging, but I have long maintained that Bruckner’s Scherzos are bombproof unless actively sabotaged; even there, however, I find Nelsons’ pulling about of tempi self-conscious and irritating and he exhorts his otherwise refined orchestra to sound elephantine. The finale, however, which can easily fragment in inexperienced hands, actually hangs together much better here and is by far the best conducted movement. The counterpoint and canon of the immense fugue are expertly played, progressing inexorably towards a glorious peroration showcasing a world-class orchestra, almost sufficient to make me forget previous disappointment.

The Tristan bonuses are beautifully played with deep, rich sonority from the Leipzig orchestra and Nelsons imbues them with the requisite sense of yearning, erotic urgency. The climax to the Liebestod is absolutely perfect.

The sound is impeccable and there is no audience noise. This is a generously filled double album but I cannot summon up much enthusiasm for its contents.

Incidentally, I wonder why so many recording companies persist in issuing new CDs with redundant cardboard covers which I instantly recycle but resist providing overall timings for the works contained. Meanwhile, other more progressive outfits provide both timings and slimmer, less breakable, recyclable, cardboard digipacks.

Ralph Moore

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