Anton Bruckner: Symphony n° 3 in D minor, WAB 103 (Nowak Edition)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Christian Thielemann (conductor)
Recording: Musikverein, Golden Hall, Vienna, Austria (November 27–29, 2020) – 60’33
Sony Classical G010004526180X – Booklet in English and German
With its mysterious opening, dramatic scope, and grand brass chorales, Bruckner’s Third Symphony is often described as the first instantiation of its composer’s characteristic symphonic style. Yet perhaps it is more helpful to see it as a transitional work. Even the outer movements, for all their heaven-storming, contain much lyrical music of charm and lilt—mostly famously the polka set against a chorale in the finale. This style would reappear at points in the Fourth, but very seldom in the later works. The Third also contains dramatic music of a more conventional Early Romantic character, especially in the “Scherzo” and “Finale”, than what we generally associate with Bruckner.
Yet another sense in which we might call this a transitional work is that if Bruckner has here happened upon a new symphonic approach—one whose superficial or technical aspects create in sum a sort of musical struggle and victory more introverted than (as preeminently with Beethoven) extroverted—he is still feeling his way into it. His invention in dramatic music is not at its most inspired, especially in the first movement—to wit, the rather awkward and abrupt first tutti theme. I was, therefore, grateful for the sheer warmth and musicality of Christian Thielemann’s approach here in his new Vienna recording, which makes the first movement quite convincing in part through the sheer naturalness of its flow and brings a graciously sensitive touch to the second. In all these points, the orchestra helps a great deal: it is beyond the shadow of reproach in its unanimity, sweetness, and blend. There is plenty of power where called for, too, even if the interpretation is basically even-keeled, not so highly inflected or propulsive as some of the very characterful early recorded Bruckner conductors (e.g., Bruno Walter, and the less heralded Georg-Ludwig Jochum—Eugen’s brother—and Volkmar Andreae) and without the almost overwhelming grandeur someone like Karajan could evoke in this music. In any event, I think it is good that Thielemann avoids exaggerating the obsessive or neurotic side of Bruckner, evident in, for instance, the ostinatos that launch the “Finale”.
Yet, if his delicacy passes into over refinement anywhere in this performance, it is in the last two movements. He could have profitably cut loose some more in the “Scherzo”, and I found some of the dramatic contrasts in the “Finale” under-characterized. Even there, however, I could not complain at the majesty with which the coda’s closing peroration was projected. In short, nothing in this Third Symphony tempted me to revise my general verdict on Thielemann in Bruckner (where he is, I suspect, at his symphonic best)—that his not inconsiderable merits would shine more brightly still if married to greater incisiveness and dramatic tension—but between the utterly magical orchestral playing and the conductor’s persuasive musicality, I was impressed and frequently moved.