'This is one of the best Bruckner-symphony recordings I have ever heard … a searing, electrically charged performance. Quite simply, it is stunning … one of the most exciting Bruckner performances on disc—and certainly the best Third I have ever heard. This is one that you simply have to have. Recommended with all the breath in my lungs … it has been a pleasure to review, and now to recommend' (Fanfare, USA)
'Beautiful playing' (Hi-Fi News)
'Vänskä conducts Bruckner with power and understanding and draws rich and finely nuanced playing' (Gramophone)
'Superbly recorded … this is an account to recommend' (International Record Review)
'The BBCSSO play splendidly for Osmo Vänskä, whose feeling for this composer seems as profound as his much-acclaimed Sibelius' (Classic FM Magazine)
'An outstanding achievement all round' (Amazon.co.uk)
'A sharp and taut reading … Vänskä captures the spaciousness of Bruckner’s building blocks. Good sound and ripe playing' (The Scotsman)
Finale: Allegro [13'22]
Of all the Bruckner symphonies, No 3 is the most fraught with editorial ‘problems’. At least eight versions are known to exist: the original version of 1873 (not published until 1977); the first revision (1874, also unpublished); a ‘rhythmic revision’ (1876); a third revision, published in 1878 as the first edition (used for the premiere); a ‘Fritz Oeser’ edition of 1877; and two other versions from 1889, one edited by Nowak. This recording is of the 1877 third (first published) version, with the inclusion of an 1876 version of its Adagio containing much new material, which was discovered pasted over in the orchestral parts used in the first performance. Bruckner called No 3 his ‘Wagner Symphony’ and it contains many quotations from the Wagner operas including the famous cascading strings from the Tannhäuser Overture.
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For some years, Bruckner’s Symphony No 3 has been notorious as the most-revised of all his symphonies. Attempting to make things easier, the British musicologist Deryck Cooke compiled a list of the versions of each of the numbered symphonies, outlining the situation in what he called ‘its present intolerable state of complexity’ (‘The Bruckner Problem Simplified’; Vindications, Faber 1982). For the Third Symphony he cited no fewer than six alternative scores:
1873: the original version (unpublished)
By a process of elimination, Cooke managed to boil this intimidating list down to just two authoritative scores: 1877 ed. Oeser and 1889 ed. Nowak. The 1873 and 1874 scores were, according to Cooke, ‘not alternative performing versions, but scores which Bruckner discarded on the way to his first definitive versions’. As for the first two published editions (1877 and 1889), these—Cooke argued—‘should be simply repudiated’; they were not authoritative versions but ‘monstrous distortions’ engineered by Bruckner’s pupils, chief amongst them Franz Schalk, still widely regarded as one of the villains of the Bruckner story.
If only it were so simple! In compiling his helpfully reduced catalogue, Cooke may have made life a lot easier for conductors and critics, but from today’s viewpoint it looks as though he was being hopelessly idealistic. Firstly, the original 1873 version has now been published, performed and recorded, and some Bruckner authorities have been deeply impressed by it: notably the conductor Georg Tintner and the composer Robert Simpson (The Essence of Bruckner, Gollancz 1992). Secondly, it turns out that in addition to the 1874 revision, mentioned by Bruckner in a letter dated 12 January 1875 to his friend Moritz von Mayfeld, there was what Bruckner called a ‘rhythmic revision’ of the Third Symphony, made in 1876, in which the architectural proportions were carefully adjusted. Taking all this into account Cooke’s list can now be extended to nine alternative scores:
1873: the original version, edited by Leopold Nowak (published since Cooke’s list appeared)
To make matters even more nightmarishly complicated, recent research has shown that several of the long-dismissed first editions of Bruckner’s symphonies may have a good deal more authentic Bruckner in them than was once suspected. The old argument that all the alterations in these first editions were wrung from Bruckner under duress simply will not do. It is true that Franz Schalk made some of his ‘improvements’ in secret, in the hope of slipping them into the published score without Bruckner noticing. But that was not always the case. Eye-witness accounts of Bruckner’s dealings with Schalk reveal that he was quite capable of putting up determined resistance when he was seriously displeased with Schalk’s suggestions. When it comes to deciding what is authentic Bruckner, the depressing fact is that we may never know.
So why did Bruckner make—or agree to—so many revisions in his symphonies, and in the Third in particular? This apparently insatiable need to change has been explained as a ‘revision mania’—a form of compulsive neurosis similar in cause and effect to Bruckner’s much-described obsession with counting. (Bruckner’s friend, the organist Karl Waldeck, tells how, during the terrible 1866/7 nervous breakdown, Bruckner was found in a field trying to count the leaves on a tree). It has also been argued that in the case of the Third Symphony, Bruckner’s confidence was shattered by the disastrous first performance of 1877, and by the subsequent critical mauling he received in the Viennese papers. But as we have seen, three full-scale revisions of the Third Symphony were made before that ill-fated premiere. And the very fact that Bruckner continued composing at all—moreover, that he continued writing symphonies—after such a humiliating experience suggests a mind with a great deal of confidence.
Another reason has been put forward—at least for the changes in the first revision of 1874. Bruckner dedicated his Third Symphony to his idol amongst living composers, Richard Wagner. The original 1873 score contained quotations from Wagner’s operas: Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde in the first movement, Lohengrin and Walküre again in the Adagio, as well as passing references to other Wagnerian motifs. According to legend, Wagner (who was deeply impressed by the Third Symphony) told Bruckner to remove them. But this has to be nonsense. Even if it is possible to imagine the supremely egoistic Wagner modestly requesting the removal of such open tributes to his genius, some of these references were retained in the Third Symphony right through to the published score of 1890—strikingly the use of Brünnhilde’s ‘Magic Sleep’ harmonies after the climax of the Adagio, and the hint of the ‘Magic Fire’ music (also from Walküre) towards the central climax of the finale.
The appearance of the version of the Adagio used in this recording is another nail in the coffin for the ‘modest Wagner’ story. When the parts used for the 1877 premiere (owned by the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde library) were examined, they were found to contain extensive corrections and pastings-over. Once these were removed, there stood revealed another complete Adagio. This extra version was probably made after the 1876 ‘rhythmic revision’, and was almost certainly intended at first for the 1877 premiere. Crucially, it reveals not only that the quotation from Lohengrin—the chorus ‘Gesegnet sollst du schreiten’ (‘Go forth with blessings’) from Act II—was retained in 1876, but that at the same time Bruckner had added a new Wagner quotation: the famous cascading string figurations from the Overture to Tannhäuser—heard as the main theme appears for the third time, building towards the final climax.
All this underlines a significant fact about Symphony No 3 which is usually either ignored or forgotten. The Third is Bruckner’s Wagner Symphony. It is clearly indicated as such on the title pages of all his manuscript scores, the name ‘Wagner’ standing out magnificently in Bruckner’s finest calligraphy. After the end of the Second World War, and the death of the Nazis’ cult of Bruckner the simple-minded Wagnerian, a determined effort was made to de-Wagnerize ideas about Bruckner and his music. It was pointed out—rightly—that his roots as a young composer were in the church music of Haydn and Mozart, Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, the more ‘classical’ symphonies of Beethoven (Bruckner did not hear the choral Ninth until he was forty-two) and the piano music, songs and masses of Schubert. All this was valuable, but the result was a systematic undervaluation of Bruckner’s Wagnerism. There is plenty of evidence that Bruckner’s knowledge of Wagner—music and dramatic content—was far deeper than popular mythology has led us to believe. Look at the main Wagner quotations in the Third Symphony, taking all the versions together. One opera, Die Walküre, dominates; apparently it was Bruckner’s favourite. The pairing of quotations in the 1873 first movement—Brünnhilde’s ‘Magic Sleep’ and Isolde’s Liebestod—shows a common theme: the image of a woman literally or metaphorically falling asleep. (Has this any connection with the fact that Bruckner also thought of the Third—or at least parts of it—as a musical memorial to his mother?) The 1876 Adagio shows another Wagnerian pairing: the Lohengrin quotation and the use of the Tannhäuser figuration—both operas about a medieval Christian knight, the first chastely married, the second un-chastely devoted to the goddess of love, Venus.
The 1876 Adagio also reveals an important stage in the increasing Wagnerization of the style of the Third Symphony. After the presentation of the Adagio’s noble first theme, there begins (at bar 9) a passage which is different in the 1873, 1876 and 1877 versions. Robert Simpson complained of the ‘feverish and highly coloured harmonic changes … almost mawkish in character’ of this passage in the 1877 and later scores. The 1876 version at this point is simpler, more gravely eloquent; at the same time its spaciousness is more Brucknerian (and, one might add, Wagnerian) than the compact, almost classical sequences of the 1873 version, which Simpson compared to the Haydn of the Seven Last Words. It is possible to see this passage in 1876 as a kind of ‘missing link’, showing Bruckner’s steadily increasing confidence in the new, slower Wagnerian pace which he gradually made his own.
Is there any hope that we may one day be able to say which of all these many versions represents the ‘best’ view of the Third Symphony? Many—Simpson included—have tried. But there is another way of looking at this. In his own lifetime, Bruckner was famous as an organist, and particularly as an improviser. Could the various versions of a symphony like No 3 be seen as different improvisations on the same grand idea? A similar suggestion has been made (notably by Charles Rosen in The Romantic Generation [Harper Collins 1996]) about the revisions of Chopin and Liszt—also great improvisers. Why not Bruckner too? If so, today’s conductor is faced with challenging but also exciting choices; and perhaps it is not bending the rules too much to consider solutions like the one offered in this recording, in which the 1876 Adagio finds a comfortable home within the larger context of the 1877 score, to which it is very close, stylistically and chronologically.
In all its many forms, the Third Symphony is in four movements—Bruckner never deviated from that broad layout in any of his symphonies, even if the order of the central Adagio and Scherzo is sometimes reversed. The first movement begins with misty string figurations, out of which emerges a quiet but striking theme on solo trumpet (which Wagner particularly admired). The movement is laid out on a grand scale: exposition, development, restatement, with the exposition arranged—typically for Bruckner—into three main subject-groups. Sometimes the surface of the music becomes animated, urgently so at times; but one senses that the background pulse is slow and patient. Often the music seems to break off at the height of its activity, giving way to quiet, solemn cadential figures. If the listener accepts that the slow background current is the ‘real’ pulse of this music, the stop-start foreground activity ceases to be frustrating, and the final outcome becomes more thoroughly satisfying (Bruckner’s final climaxes rarely disappoint).
In this 1876 version the Adagio follows a rondo-like A–B–A–B–A pattern—again typical of Bruckner in his slow movements. It is eleven bars longer than the 1873 ‘original’ Adagio, and an astonishing thirty-eight bars longer than the more familiar 1877 score, which was radically (and, some would say, insensitively) cut. Bruckner made a revealing comment about the slow dance-like theme in 3/4 which appears towards the end of the first B section: apparently Bruckner conceived this from the first as an elegy for his mother—a strong-minded, highly musical woman, vulnerable (like her son) to attacks of depression.
The third movement is a driving scherzo, the lighter trio section strongly flavoured with rustic dance elements—in his youth Bruckner had supplemented his meagre teacher’s income by playing violin and piano in village dance-bands. The finale also sets out determinedly, with rushing strings and a powerfully striding theme for brass. It rises in two great waves, then the tempo drops and the second theme strikingly combines polka-like string figures with a solemn chorale (brass answered by woodwind). According to Bruckner’s biographer August Göllerich, Bruckner had a message here. Göllerich and the composer were strolling around Vienna one evening when they heard dance music issuing from a nearby house. Over the road the body of the cathedral architect Schmidt lay in the Sühnhaus. ‘Listen!’ said Bruckner. ‘In that house there’s dancing, while over there the Master lies in his coffin. That’s life. That’s what I wanted to show in my Third Symphony. The polka represents the fun and joy in the world, the chorale its sadness and pain.’ But in the end it is joy which triumphs: a blazing trumpet fanfare, a thrilling cadence, then the Third Symphony’s opening trumpet theme returns, radiantly transfigured in the major key.
Stephen Johnson © 2000