ANTON BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor; Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major “Romantic” – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons – RCO Live (2 SACDs)

by | Jan 9, 2010 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

ANTON BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor; Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major “Romantic” – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons – RCO Live multichannel SACDs (2 discs) RCA 09002, 56:43, 67:09 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

Pardon my mercenary slant, but the first thing I noted about this double-SACD package was its list price of $44 in the U.S.   A British reviewer called it a bargain set, so I gather it is much cheaper there.  Jansons seems to have a recording project under way with these two symphonies, and he recently recorded the Bruckner Seventh for Sony. He uses the popular Nowak edition in both cases, which excises in the Third most of the Wagner quotations which the composer – in his unquestioning worshipful attitude to Wagner – had included.  As a result, the work, especially in its original edition, is often referred to as his Wagner Symphony.

Both symphonies, like most of Bruckner’s, went thru complex changes, with the composer regularly shortening and adjusting the scores in changes prompted by his pupils and friends. He was a simple and very insecure man.  Jansons is partial to the Nowak edition and makes a good case for them in both of these impressive live performances. He is aided by leading the orchestra which was recently named by some authority as the world’s finest, plus some of the best sonics the RCO Live engineers have achieved to date. The horn section is especially lovely, with a rich and enveloping sound, and superb playing. And so is the phrasing coming from the woodwinds.  The slow movements of both symphonies are standouts, the equal to my ears of those of Mahler.

Some listeners may want a bit more Brucknerian drama in their interpretations than is Jansons’ style. But he has a glorious sound, very precise structure, and somehow the many minimalist repetitions in Bruckner don’t seem to approach the “OK, that’s enough!” point the way the music does under some other batons.  I had two other No. 3 SACDs at hand, and it’s interesting that both follow the original 1873 score before all the Wagnerian cuts, running in one version more than 12 minutes longer.  The one with Jonathan Nott and the Bamberger Symphony on Tudor is rather bloodless next to the other – Simone Young conducting the Hamburg Philharmonic on Oehms. Young brings a strong emotional quality to her Bruckner Third and should be heard if that is your preference.

The “Romantic” Fourth is probably Bruckner’s most-performed symphony, and an excellent introduction to his art. There are several competitors on SACD, though mostly from Japanese issues which are expensive and often difficult to obtain.  A personal favorite is Günter Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic on RCA Red Seal, but only available on a standard CD in North America, while it is part of a SACD set (as well as individually) from BMG Japan. There is also a version conducted by Kent Nagano on Sony Classical.

The Fourth sometimes contrasts heavy musical statements with light, almost corny and folksy music, not that different from the contrasts heard in Mahler symphonies. Jansons clearly enjoys the rustic bits, not treating them in an apologetic manner. He also really digs into the opening of the finale of the Fourth, ramped up by the vivid multichannel hi-res audio. Such great sound and playing make up for perhaps not quite the most exciting Bruckner ever.

 – John Sunier

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