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 Recording of the Week, Andris Nelsons conducts Bruckner's Third Symphony

The forthcoming 2017/18 season will mark the official start of Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons’s tenure as Gewandhauskapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, and in advance of this Deutsche Grammophon has released his first recording with the orchestra, Bruckner's Symphony No. 3.

Andris Nelsons
Andris Nelsons

Bruckner’s symphonies tend to be something of a minefield of alternative editions, none more so than this Third Symphony, which has at least six different versions, ranging from the original 1873 score through to the final 1889 revisions. I don't want to get too bogged down in the different versions, but in its early incarnation it was dubbed the "Wagner Symphony", partly because Bruckner took the score to Wagner seeking (and receiving) his approval, but also for the number of quotations of Wagner's music that the work originally contained.

The main thing to notice about the 1889 version that Nelsons has chosen to record is that all the direct Wagner quotations have been removed, although there are places where I still detected a few nods in Wagner’s direction (a suggestion of the Magic Fire music from Die Walküre in the finale, for example).

A criticism sometimes levelled at Bruckner's symphonies is that (in a bad performance at least) they can consist of little more than lots of loud brass playing, and it's certainly true here that Nelsons encourages some fine, weighty brass in the appropriate places, with trumpets and trombones blazing through, not least in the Scherzo, where they bring a fantastic bite to their sound.

For me, though, where this recording reveals itself to be a truly top-drawer Bruckner performance is in the quieter moments: there are dozens of delicate, exposed passages that need great care to get right. In this respect the Leipzig woodwind and horns are immaculate, with some beautiful tone from the oboes especially, and Nelsons draws fantastic extremes of dynamics in the string sound: full of warmth one moment, then switching immediately to the most intense, hushed playing that had me holding my breath in order not to miss a moment of it. As I say, while the brassy climaxes do ring out most satisfactorily, Nelsons brings such shape and poise to his sculpting of these long movements that I’m sure this performance will win over some new converts to the cause of Bruckner!

It’s little surprise that the symphony is coupled with the overture to Wagner's Tannhäuser, as Nelsons says it is the piece that made him want to be a conductor when his parents took him to a performance of the opera at the tender age of five. He has recorded the overture before, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and while this isn’t really the place to compare the two recordings in any detail, if anything in my opinion this new Leipzig account of the overture is even finer. It's fascinating to hear the tiny differences between the two performances (for instance, in Boston the opening phrase leans towards the sound of the clarinets, whereas in Leipzig the horns are ever so slightly more prominent, which changes the balance just enough to make it sound new and interesting).

I'm told that this release marks the start of a complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies from Nelsons and his Leipzig players, and on the evidence of this fine account I can only imagine what delights await us in future instalments!

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC