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on 22 July 2012
This is a performance of the 1888 version of the Romantic Symphony, the third and final version of the Symphony. For several decades, it has been rarely performed because of its rejection by Bruckner scholars, notably Robert Haas and Leopold Nowak, as spurious. The notes to many a recording of the second version, composed between 1878 and 1880 and now the most frequently performed, are reflective of that view. This is what John Williamson, the author of the notes to Abbado's 1990 VPO recording of the 1878/80 version, wrote: "It should also be mentioned that the so-called "revised version" published in 1880 (sic) is seldom performed nowadays, being largely the work of Bruckner's disciple Ferdinand Lowe." And, according to Wolfgang Seifert, author of the notes to Wand's 1998 recording of the 1878/80 version with the BPO, "other modifications and first editions that appeared during Bruckner's lifetime contain major incursions made by the "practical musicians" surrounding him and cannot be seen as authentic."
Yet, it would appear that such conclusions are overly simplistic, at best. The notes to the present recording were written by Benjamin Korstvedt, who prepared a critical edition of the 1888 version, published in 2004 by the International Bruckner Society of Vienna. In those notes, he emphasises that, while the manuscript score of the 1888 version was initially copied by Bruckner's acolytes, the Schalk brothers and Ferdinand Lowe, Bruckner authorised its final publication and oversaw its performance in January 1888. Furthermore, the copy "contains numerous revisions and emendations subsequently made by Bruckner himself that testify to the care and seriousness with which the composer undertook its preparation."
Without compelling evidence that the composer was acting under duress or lacked conviction in the changes, the fact that the composer himself authorised the 1888 version would seem to provide fair grounds for not dismissing it, notwithstanding the composer's supposed preparedness to change scores based on the opinions of others (though apparently Korstvedt also argues that Bruckner firmly resisted changes if they did not accord with his better judgement). Certainly, it would seem unreasonable, on the one hand, to reject the 1888 version, authorised by the composer, and, on the other, accept the first version (composed in 1874), whose publication was never authorised by the composer, and which, indeed, was significantly altered by him for the purposes of the 1878/80 version (but which has become increasingly popular with conductors).
Listeners familiar with the 1878/80 version would, on listening to the 1888 version, recognise that the former is left largely intact. However numerous the changes in the 1888 version, they mainly relate to instrumentation and performance markings. In the chorale near the end of the first movement development, for example, the shimmering violins remain, but among the changes are as follows: the brass are pared back in delivering the chorale, except at certain points when they project forcefully supported by timpani rolls (the last of these timpani rolls is observed by some conductors whilst using the 1878/80 version, such as Karajan and, more dramatically, Muti, both with the BPO in 1975 [DG] and 1985 [EMI] respectively); gone are the horn accents; and violas and cellos play pizzicato in a supporting role. Another notable example is the use of the cymbals in the final movement: a crash at the reprise of the Symphony's opening theme, another feature that some conductors borrow when performing the 1878/80 version (eg Jochum and Karajan, both with the BPO in 1965 [DG] and 1975 [DG] respectively, and Jansons in 2008 with the RCO [RCO Live]); and two gentle strokes in the coda.
There are some changes in form, most notably in the third movement, where the reassertion of the scherzo (prior to the trio) is shortened, with the climax removed, and a new passage ushers in the trio. The reprise of the scherzo following the trio is also shortened.
Whether these changes are seen as improvements or unnecessary embellishments will be for individual listeners to judge. On the whole, I was not offended, but nor was I particularly persuaded, especially by the sharper articulation in several timpani parts, and, in my view, the chorale of the first movement is more noble and stirring in its 1878/80 version with those horn accents (particularly resplendent in Bohm's recording with the VPO in 1973). That said, one could argue that the formal changes to the third movement are to the benefit in the sense that the movement does not simply consist of scherzo, trio and repeat of scherzo note for note, but is a more varied beast with the climax saved until last. Then again, such changes are not in accord with the standard structure of Bruckner's scherzos. Then again, had Bruckner lived longer....
I dare say, however, that, while the changes wrought by the 1888 version may be of interest, the key issue for many listeners will be Vanska's take on the music generally. In this regard, Vanska certainly has something different to offer, at least to those, like me, brought up on a diet of Karajan, Bohm etc.
The difference is apparent at the first fortissimo for full orchestra. To those used to hearing an expansive sea of sound, what is provided by Vanska and his players may come as a bit of a surprise. It is leaner and more transparently textured, and the theme is delivered with greater incisiveness. Throughout, instrumental detail, even in densely scored passages, such as that intense build up to the first climax to the final movement, register cleanly. There is less density and weight. Tempos are generally swift, though not breathless, and there is great rhythmic vitality.
Vanska is attentive to dynamics, and phrases are sculpted with care. After the first movement, Vanska, somewhat against expectations, adopts a leisurely approach to the Andante (16.18); Karajan, in his 1975 performance on DG, is nearly 2 minutes faster. It is, however, a gravely beautiful account and well sustained.
On the whole, I liked the performance, but, at times in the first movement (for example, that first fortissimo), Vanska's clean-etched incisiveness seemed a pedantic mannerism, robbing the music of some of its grandeur. In addition - and this is a relatively minor point - at the commencement of the final movement, double basses and cellos play a set of repeated notes quietly and rapidly, producing a throbbing effect. This contributes greatly to the momentum, tension and ominous tone of this beginning. However, Vanska's double basses and cellos play so quietly that they are only just audible until around 30 seconds in, as the build-up to the climax takes effect.
The Minnesota strings produce a lean but warm sound, in keeping with the overall conception, and the brass really shine. The sonics are excellent.