Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin – Bruckner 3 Original

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Symphony No.3 in D minor [Original Version of 1873, edited Nowak]

Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 April, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

If the first half didn’t quite gel, the second was a triumph.

A post-funeral minute’s silence for The Queen Mother was followed by an unscheduled ’Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (Rückert-Lieder), which lacked poise as the afterlife was contemplated – and not helped by premature applause (the music hadn’t finished!) despite none being needed.

Thomas Quasthoff was more easeful in the advertised Mahler, these ’Wayfarer Songs’ being ardent and spontaneous if underplaying the ultimate sense of loss; similarly Kent Nagano’s scrupulous accompaniment got close to bland in its refinement and was nearly always at one-remove to the sentiments expressed.

Nagano’s transparent soundworld, the DSO’s integration of detail – another way of saying that the brass didn’t blaze away (wonderful!) – initially seemed foreign to Bruckner’s rough-hewn timbres and intimations of mountains and forests. But Nagano knows that no excuses need be made for Bruckner’s problem-child of a symphony, one that would undergo two wholesale revisions and constant tinkering – he played it with a conviction that was absorbing. This quirky, even strange original version, such a rarity in concert halls and on CD, has enjoyed most of all the late Georg Tintner’s advocacy (as recorded – Naxos), an epic reading absolutely uncompromising of Bruckner’s vision. Nagano has a similar grasp. In a reading of 71 minutes (27, 18, 6, 20), Nagano gave the music all the time it needs to make an impact; he also ensured that silences were of full-length – so important.

Attention to detail was fastidious, especially in the strings with regard to trills and staccatos, but there was nothing prissy. Indeed Nagano’s patience with the music, and his obvious belief in it, backed to the hilt by his Orchestra, brought out all of Bruckner’s individuality.

How successful the first movement is at a spacious tempo (Tintner takes 30 minutes) – it needs rock-like grandeur and suggestions of vistas afar; Bruckner’s implacable sense of direction, his tempo variations and off-at-a-tangent interludes were made all of a piece by Nagano. A moment of benediction for the strings, partly due to Nagano’s requirement for beauty of sound and rapt expression, threw the music forward to Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question in its ’from above’ communion.

In his unveiling of Bruckner’s antecedents, and in stripping away unnecessary rhetoric and cheap impulse, Nagano brought timbral lucidity and a light expressive touch to this massive symphony without denuding its scale and reach. The slow movement (even allowing that the first movement has ’adagio’ tendencies) had a flexibility of pulse that suggested a ’theme and variations’ and Haydnesque limpidity of textural interplay. This is the movement in which the symphony’s ’Wagner’ sobriquet is most apparent – Bruckner remained a devotee despite Wagner asking that quotations of his music be removed – although only a couple of references to Tristan and a Tannhauser-like peroration are readily apparent.

The scherzo enjoyed a light, insouciant tread, the repeated staccatos more playful than emphatic, the jig-trio buoyant and affectionate, its Schubertian rusticity underlined. Nagano delineated the slow-fast finale without apology, and brought out its modernisms. He also introduced the second-subject polka with a light heart, the pizzicatos (removed in the revisions) smile-inducing.

This is one of the finest accounts of any Bruckner symphony I’ve heard. I spoke with Nagano afterwards: the good news is that he and the DSO will make a recording. In this painstaking and perceptive traversal Nagano revealed the full glory and unpredictability of Bruckner’s first thoughts – not an embryonic symphony, rather one that is quirkily complete and just waiting to be misunderstood and made conventional.

  • The DSO and Kent Nagano return to the Barbican this Thursday, 11 April – Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Quasthoff) and Schubert’s ’Great C major’ symphony
  • Box Office: 020 7638 8891

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