August 13, 2009


Bruckner: Symphony No. 3. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 15. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

     The 19th century was a time of tremendous expansion of symphonic form – and also a time in which elements of that form were applied to small-scale works. Certainly symphonies never grew more monumental than those of Bruckner, whose No. 3 in D minor contains a variety of quotations from Richard Wagner’s operas and is often called the “Wagner Symphony” (Bruckner dedicated it, almost fawningly, to Wagner, whom he idolized). Running more than an hour, this symphony significantly exceeded in length and complexity any of Bruckner’s four previous ones (the first two are numbered “00” and “0”). Because of the work’s length and difficulty, it was subjected to a number of cuts and revisions over time; its original 1873 version was not performed in the composer’s lifetime. But that version – the one played by the Bamberg Symphony under Jonathan Nott in a wonderful new SACD of a 2003 recording – is far superior to the truncated later ones through which listeners first got to know this grandly impressive work. Bruckner was an organist, and organists must deal with certain physical necessities of their instrument, such as pauses while changing registers. Bruckner carried this limitation into his symphonies and made it a characteristic: themes build to resounding climaxes but then stop just short of them, or just afterwards, and the music resumes in a very different mode – which Bruckner eventually connects to what has gone before. Trimmed versions of Symphony No. 3 dropped or glossed over these pauses, and also eliminated some of its quotations from Wagner, resulting in a shorter, more conventional work. Nott shows how much more effective the original 1873 version can be – it is tempting to say that he “pulls out all the stops” (a term from organ playing), but that is not quite it: Nott does build the music to gigantic climaxes, abetted by Tudor’s outstanding sound reproduction, but he also pays close attention to details of the scoring, bringing out a trumpet flourish here, a woodwind detail there, a passage in middle strings elsewhere, showing with gorgeous clarity just how Bruckner builds this towering orchestral edifice. It is only in the symphony’s shortest movement, the scherzo, that Nott’s interpretation falls a bit short: Bruckner clearly marks this movement Ziemlich schnell (“quite fast”), but Nott has it meandering rather than rushing. This does allow inner voices and other details to come through clearly, but at the expense of forward momentum – which, however, returns with a very brisk opening of the complex finale. Overall, this is a knowing, attentive, very well-played Bruckner Third that clearly shows the superiority of the composer’s original version over all the later revisions.

     While Bruckner expanded the form of the symphony, Johann Strauss Jr. and his brother Josef incorporated symphonic structure and harmonies into the pleasantries of dance music, turning many of their waltzes into miniature tone poems. In this approach, they expanded on the work of their father, Johann Sr., eight of whose works from the early 1840s are offered on the 15th CD in Marco Polo’s collection of Strauss Sr.’s music. There are five waltzes here, two quadrilles and a march, all of them redolent of Biedermeier Vienna and all of them tied to specific people or events – an approach that cemented Strauss Sr.’s popularity but from which Johann Jr. and Josef increasingly diverged. The two quadrilles – their names translate as High Society and Season-Quadrille – are particularly pleasant divertissements, the former written in 1842 in honor of Emperor Ferdinand I and the latter presented in 1843 and incorporating excerpts from works by three famous virtuosi of the time: violinist Henri Vieuxtemps and pianists Karl Evers and Theodor Kullak. Parade March, also from 1843, is a brief and bright work. As for the waltzes, all are of high quality and filled with Straussian lilt. Minnesinger includes borrowings from the works of then-popular cello virtuoso Adrien-François Servais; Latonen is named for the Roman goddess of night and secrets and was written for a nighttime ball; Strains of Minos, dedicated to law students, has lovely flow, as does The Strollers, which was written for a benefit concert; and Valhalla-Toasts, written for a building named for the Germanic kingdom of the dead, is both stately and very melodious. This music is one of the specialties of the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina, and Christian Pollack is an expert at plumbing what depths there are while letting the melodies flow freely and the rhythms entrance the listener – something they still do more than 160 years after these works were first heard.

1 comment:

  1. What a great review! I appreciate your insight into why Bruckner writes the way he does - those stops can be a little disconcerting at times.