Bruckner 3 Twice With Care, Insight From Nézet-Séguin

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Canadian-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin becomes music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2020.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor WAB103. 1873 Original Version. Nowack Edition, 1977. Staatskapelle Dresden /Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Live performance Sept. 21, 2008, at the Semperoper Dresden. Profil 12011. Total Time 72:00.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor WAB103. 1873 Original Version. Nowack Edition, 1977. Orchestre Métropolitain/Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Live performance June 2014 at Maison symphonique, Montreal. ATMA Classique ACD 22700. Total Time: 66:00.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — For several years now, Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been working on a recorded Bruckner cycle with his Montreal ensemble, the Orchestre Métropolitain. The latest installment, Symphony No. 2, was issued in late 2016, leaving only two more symphonies (Nos. 1 and 5) to complete the cycle. As it happens, however, the German label Profil has just released a sensational live performance of Symphony No. 3 with Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Nézet-Séguin, making for a fascinating comparison with his later recording of the same symphony with the Orchestre Métropolitain.

Any discussion of Bruckner symphonies must begin with a consideration of the version of the score being used. Bruckner was notorious for never being satisfied with his first version and often made revisions that resulted in four or even five versions of the same piece. In the case of the Third Symphony, we have five versions made by the composer and no fewer than seven published editions with more on the way. To date, although there is no consensus on which version or versions are more authoritative than the others, there is clearly a trend toward the original 1873 version, the one that the eminent Bruckner conductor Herbert Blomstedt decided is superior to all the others:

There is no “perfect” version, but knowing the 1873 version, one can see all the scars,
and sometimes still bleeding wounds, in the later versions. According to Robert Simpson, Bruckner improved when he reworked other symphonies, but in the Third, he destroyed more than he gained. Especially the momentum and the long architectural lines were damaged…Why should we not perform “The Wagner Symphony” as Bruckner presented it to Wagner that remarkable day in Bayreuth?

Anton Bruckner (Josef Büche)

Bruckner, who practically worshipped Wagner, paid homage to his fellow composer in the Third Symphony by quoting from several of his works, including Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre. In the comments quoted above, Blomstedt is alluding to Bruckner’s visit to Wagner’s Bayreuth home in September 1873 for the purpose of showing him the score of the Third Symphony and persuading him to accept its dedication to him. To Bruckner’s delight, Wagner expressed enthusiasm for the piece and accepted its dedication.

Bruckner’s delight notwithstanding, the Wagner quotations in his original version of the Third Symphony were eventually mostly erased in later versions. In a way, one could say that the Third Symphony is also an homage to Beethoven. At the beginning of the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven quoted themes from the Ninth’s first three movements. In the 1873 version of the Third Symphony, near the end of the last movement, Bruckner similarly quotes themes from the Third’s earlier movements. Like the Wagner quotations mentioned earlier, these self-quotations were also cut out of most of the later versions of the Third.

Nézet-Séguin has done his own research on the various editions of the Third Symphony and come to his own conclusions. It would seem that his mind is made up. We now have two of his recordings of the Third Symphony made six years apart, both of them based on the original 1873 version.

Setting aside the issues surrounding the various versions of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, on the evidence of these two recordings, it is clear that Yannick Nézet-Séguin has a deeply considered understanding of this music and how it should be played. It might be said that he is a traditionalist, approaching Bruckner in the manner of older conductors such as Jochum, Böhm, and Karajan.

He uses a large orchestra and favors a sound rich in vibrato and somewhat bass-heavy – in a good way – and his tempos tend to be slow. Most importantly, he allows the music to take its time, to breathe, if you will. Some conductors get impatient with Bruckner and shorten fermatas and rests to try to keep the music moving. That is not always a good thing. Bruckner’s silences are not only often extraordinarily eloquent; they are also integral to his music. Somehow the conductor must “stay in character” through the pauses in order to make sense of Bruckner’s unique style of expression. Nézet-Séguin knows how to do it, and this is especially clear in the Dresden live performance. That said, non-traditional Bruckner fans might wish to sample the chamber orchestra and almost vibratoless stylings of Venzago (CPO CD 777 690-2) or Norrington (EMI CD 5561672).

In comparing these two performances by the same conductor with two different orchestras, one of them among the world’s oldest and finest orchestras in this repertoire, one might well ask whether the comparison is even fair. Surely the Staatskapelle Dresden is a clear winner when set alongside Montreal’s “second” orchestra, the Orchestre Métropolitain. One of the OM’s primary original goals was to provide work for graduates of Quebec’s conservatories and university music departments, and to this day it gives preference to these young professionals. While this remains an admirable raison d’être, the OM has, as a result, cut itself off from the vast talent pool created at Curtis, Juilliard, and the many other illustrious American music schools.

Nézet-Séguin did not create the Orchestre Métropolitain – it was formed in 1981 under Marc Bélanger – but despite his present lofty perch in the world of classical music, he remains fiercely loyal to this organization, which gave him his first opportunities as a conductor. He is still the OM’s music director and conducts most of its subscription concerts every season.

Having heard the OM often over the years, I can testify that it is an excellent orchestra, and under Nézet-Séguin’s direction its concerts are frequently memorable. The Bruckner cycle for ATMA is a noteworthy achievement for both conductor and orchestra. The performance of the Third Symphony offers refined and disciplined playing, especially from the great viola section led by Brian Bacon and from principal horn Louis-Philippe Marsolais. But when all is said and done, it is unrealistic to expect that the OM can match Staatskapelle Dresden for the depth of tone in the string playing or the understanding of the repertoire ensuing from decades of training and experience.

Moreover, as evidenced by this recording, on Sept. 21, 2008, Nézet-Séguin and the Staatskapelle Dresden had a meeting of hearts and minds that created a very special musical event. The way that conductor and orchestra build to the first climax is hair-raising. The beginning of the last movement is also thrilling in its intensity with the string players digging into the strings as few orchestras can. And the brass climaxes are awesome but never raw. Nézet-Séguin’s tempo for the slow movement appears at first to be dangerously slow, but the strings of Staatskapelle Dresden never waver in their concentration. The effect is mesmerizing.

I have no doubt that this is one of the greatest Bruckner performances ever captured on a recording. It also makes a very strong case for the original 1873 version of the Third Symphony.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.

Date posted: January 6, 2017

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  1. Interesting to bear in mind that the original version of the Third, in number of measures, is longer than the Eighth.

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