BRUCKNER – Symphony No. 3 (Version 1877) ‒ Muskikollegium Wintethur / Thomas Zehetmair ‒ Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD MDG 901 2090-6 (2+2+2); 50:56 (10/1/2018) ****
The third of Bruckner’s symphonies is nicknamed the “Wagner Symphony” because Bruckner, a Wagner acolyte, carried manuscripts of the Second and Third Symphonies when he visited the great man in 1873. He won Wagner’s approval, which was probably not an easy feat for most musicians of the day, and gratefully dedicated the Third to the older composer, who seemed to prefer it to the Second. Thus, almost certainly, began Bruckner’s travails over his most problematic symphony. The first version of the symphony (1873)—replete with clear allusions to Wagner’s music—would have clocked in at around 75 minutes in performance, if it had been performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, slated to debut the work. This did not happen. To make the symphony more palatable, Bruckner worked up a second (1877) version, axing perhaps twenty minutes’ worth of music. This version was accepted for performance, but the designated conductor, Johann von Herbeck died a month before the projected debut, so Bruckner conducted the first performance. Disastrously, it appears. Critics of the anti-Wagner faction didn’t help the work’s reception. Eduard Hanslick, a Wagner hater and Brahms lover, described the Third as “a vision of Beethoven’s Ninth becoming friendly with the Valkyries and ending up being trampled under their hooves.” Following the triumph of Bruckner’s Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, the composer tried to salvage the reputation of the Third, producing a third version in 1889, which he revised the next year.
Illustrating the problems that the symphony caused Bruckner, the 1873 version itself went through a couple of revisions. It didn’t appear in print until 1977! There are a few recordings available today, but the later versions, especially 1889, are much more often recorded. Since the 1889 version is the most frequently encountered, it’s good to have Zehetmair’s rendition of 1877.
With his usual melodic generosity, Bruckner offers no fewer than three themes in the opening and closing movements of the symphony. As usual, the central theme offers a real contrast to the other, more agitated ones. The symphony opens with a troubled ostinato figure in the strings, above which the trumpet enters with the first theme. (In memory of this theme, Wagner referred to Bruckner as “Trumpet Bruckner” thereafter.) The second theme is quieter, with a descending pattern that cools the argument raised by the first. The finale begins with a maelstrom of a theme reminiscent of the opening of the symphony (and in fact the symphony’s first theme is reprised in the coda), while the second theme has a lilting, dancelike quality. This recalls an astute observation made by Hans-Dieter Grünefeld in notes to the present recording. Bruckner’s father was a schoolmaster in the village of Ansfelden, near Linz. His musical duties included both the sacred and profane, as he would have played the organ and conducted the church choir but also provided dance music at town celebrations. Hence (maybe) the stark thematic contrasts in the finale of the Third.
Despite the melodic profusion in the two sonata-form movements, I think the argument Bruckner builds from it just isn’t as compelling as in his later symphonies. I find the middle movements, and especially the scherzo, hold the attention better and point more forcefully toward future successes.
Be that as it may, conductor Zehetmair and his small orchestra (around 50 members) capture the Bruckner spirit, injecting a sense of drama into the troubled opening of the symphony and a special verve into the pulsing scherzo. Whether they capture a real Bruckner sound is open to debate. The performance reminds me of Thomas Dausgaard’s recording of the Second Symphony (on a BIS SACD), which I reviewed some time ago. Perhaps the Second responds better to that light touch, or maybe Dausgaard just has a better handle on Bruckner’s architecture, but I remember responding more favorably to Dausgaard’s approach. For one thing, Zehetmair and company are for the most part very fast, shaving about four, five, or even more minutes off the timings clocked by other conductors. This tends to smooth over some of the drama and contrast in the outer movements. And while the excellent MDG recording was set down in a church, giving the orchestra a bigger, rounder sound than would have been the case in a hall or studio, I do miss that heft I find when I turn to, for example, Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw (performing the 1889 version on RCO Live). I guess that in closing I’d say Zehetmair’s performance does let some welcome light and air into Bruckner’s cathedral of sound, while recognized as an alternative perspective from the more traditional readings.