Bruckner: Symphony No. 3 in D minor WAB 103 (1888/89 version). Wagner: Tannhäuser: Overture. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons. DG 479 7208. Total Time: 75:48.
Conductor Andris Nelsons is now nicely settled in as music director of the Boston Symphony; having begun his tenure in 2014, he is in the middle of his fourth season and early next year takes on a similar position with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.
Leading two major orchestras an ocean apart is a challenge, but the maestro and his orchestras have come up with an interesting solution. Nelsons will travel back and forth between the two cities, Boston and Leipzig, and members of his orchestras will do the same. Cross-fertilization, if you will — a novel concept that should benefit both the players and their audiences.
This new Bruckner-Wagner CD, Nelsons’ first with the Gewandhausorchester, is also the beginning of a Bruckner symphony cycle they will do together. Under Kurt Masur (1970-1996) back in the days when Leipzig was part of communist East Germany, and then under Herbert Blomstedt (1998-2005) and Riccardo Chailly (2005-2016) in turn, this orchestra was notable for the quality of its string playing. The winds and brass were less distinguished. Today, the orchestra is first-class in all departments. The string playing in the Bruckner is remarkably rich and full-bodied. The horn playing is equally impressive, with superlative playing by the principal horn as well as by pairs of horns and all four together in some passages. The rich, dark sound is perfectly balanced and absolutely in tune. The performance by the horn section itself is worth the price of this CD!
Nelsons’ Bruckner is not in the tradition of Furtwängler, Jochum, Böhm or Karajan, who all found mystery and grandeur in the music, in its ethereal episodes alternating with massive, brassy climaxes. Nelsons teases out the often obscured inner voices with great skill but often seems to miss the forest for the trees. Even in the big moments at the end of the first and fourth movements, one gets the feeling that his forces are being held back. Although this is not the way I like my Bruckner, other listeners may find Nelsons’ blended sound just what the doctor ordered.
The ‘filler’ item on this CD, Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, provides an opportunity to hear the same music conducted by Nelsons with each of his orchestras. In his inaugural concert as music director in Boston on September 27, 2014, Nelsons conducted the piece and this performance has been released on the orchestra’s own label (BSO Classics 1401). The Gewandhausorchester performance on this CD, also recorded live, was captured about a year and a half later, in June, 2016.
The Tannhäuser overture begins with a quiet statement of the Pilgrims’ Chorus tune in a version for pairs of clarinets, bassoons and horns. Once again, I was struck by the beautiful sound of the Gewandhausorchester horns – sublime playing and a perfect tempo. The Boston Symphony musicians, by comparison, play well, but without the magic we hear on the Gewandhausorchester recording.
Before long the Pilgrims’ Chorus tune re-appears in a majestic version featuring the three trombones; then again, even more impressively, in the final section. The secret of this last version, what makes it so grand and thrilling, is Wagner’s orchestration. He gives the tune to the three trombones once again, but adds three trumpets doubling the melody and playing in their lowest register — yet another example of Wagner’s genius, which with a great conductor on the podium, never fails to be tremendously exciting.
Unfortunately, in this section, Nelsons seems to miss the point altogether. Once again, we have meticulous care for balance, when what is required is sheer ‘let it all hang out’ power. For a much better version of the overture, and a fine example of what I am talking about, try Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (Warner Classics 825646244249). The finest live performance I have ever heard of the Tannhäuser Overture also featured Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (Boston Symphony Hall, November 6, 1974). Karajan had an almost uncanny ability to build climaxes. Just when one thought it couldn’t get any more intense, he and his orchestra turned it up a notch. It was not only the great peroration that was so memorable in both the recording and the live performance, but also the ebb and flow of the music, which Karajan captured as few other conductors have been able to, before or since.
I have admired much of Nelsons’ work in the past, but in these Bruckner and Wagner performances, and in his recent Brahms recordings with the Boston Symphony, he is more often up-tight than spontaneous in his music-making. In the case of his two recordings of the Tannhäuser Overture, he gives us virtually identical performances, although I would give the edge to the Gewandhausorchester for the depth of its string sound and the magnificent horn playing.
Incidentally, the name “Gewandhausorchester” means literally “clothing store orchestra.” In its early days — it was founded in 1781 — the orchestra rehearsed and performed on the third floor of a store that sold textiles!