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BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3 &  WAGNER: Tannhäuser – Gewandhaus Orch. Leipzig/ Andris Nelsons – DGG

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3 &  WAGNER: Tannhäuser – Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig/ Andris Nelsons – DGG 479 7208, 75:55 (5/5/17) ***½:

Patience rewarded (intermittently) on a long Bruckner journey. 

In a Bruckner symphony, there is quite a lot of standing around waiting for something to happen. One might compare it to the experience of whale-watching, drifting about pleasantly on a placid surface, while anticipation builds. One senses a stirring as an idea gathers itself beneath the surface. Then, having built to an inevitable statement, it breeches with glorious  beauty. Once subsiding, the waters become almost apologetically calm, and there is, for a moment, nothing more interesting than the stray seagull. I judge Bruckner symphonies by the frequency and relative power of these emphatic demonstrations. By that standard, the present offering ranks high, but well behind the memorable symphony number four.

Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra give a confident reading of this fine work. The Yellow Label engineers, however, have their hands full managing the impossible task of squeezing the enormous dynamics of this live concert onto a small plastic object. With anything like average home stereo equipment, you will be fiddling with the nobs on the pianissimo sections, which at least gives you something to do during the many lulls in the action.

The Third Symphony has a striking entry, perhaps the most inspired of any by the Austrian composer, a shimmering d-minor chord with a luminous cosmogonic theme, lacking only a David Attenborough voiceover “this is how the universe began….” Was Bruckner paying homage to his compatriot Joseph Haydn’s Creation? The first climax, a simple declaration by horns, arrives midway in the long initial movement. On the other side, marked Misterioso, we recapitulate the cosmos theme, then proceed back and forth between Austrian Romanticism and the composer’s distinctive sweeping, horn-fortified themes. The first movement feels like an entire symphony and a very good one. We are ready for an intermission, but in fact, we are just warming up.

Even though the famous Leipzig Orchestra does is best to hold the ensuing 37 minutes together, there are longueurs. The second movement hovers between timid introspection and melodrama. We badly need the eruption of the whale, which, although it rises toward the surface 14 minutes in, fails to come  fully into view, lacking either momentum or resolve.The Ziemlich schnell – Trio third movement is replete with forward drive and dotted- note, waltzing energy. It is positive, robust music, old fashioned in its simplicity, and in its healthy non-irony, in contrast to the style of Bruckner’s contemporary Mahler. The final Allegro is boisterous without being particularly memorable. By the end, we might hazard that there is one waltz too many, although throughout we admire the lovely balance between the pellucid strings and the warm horns. When something like a Big Idea does come along, it is half-hearted and stilted. It is hard to imagine the Leipzigers launching from their seats in spontaneous applause as the work concludes.

Following the symphony, we get the quarter hour Tannhäuser Ooverture by Bruckner’s great model and inspiration, Richard Wagner. While the late Romantic language is the same, and both works abound in stately themes and slow- building dramatic crescendos, Wagner is at once more persuasive in his use of the whole orchestra and quite simply more interesting. Rather than a make-weight, the final piece is a standard by which we can measure Bruckner’s aspiration and relative achievement.

This live recording is an unqualified success. The Third can be recommended to anyone who hasn’t heard it, while the Tannhäuser represents a significant bonus. Of course, the sequel might be expected from the estimable orchestra and conductor: the superior Bruckner Fourth Symphony, with another choice Wagner overture added for good measure.

—Fritz Balwit

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