Bruckner’s second Third Symphony, a mighty performance from Gerd Schaller at Bad Kissingen

GermanyGermany Mozart, Bruckner: Jochen Tschabrun (clarinet), Philharmonie Festiva / Gerd Schaller (conductor).  Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen, 7.4.2024. (KW)

Gerd Schaller

Mozart – Clarinet Concerto
Bruckner – Symphony No.3 (1877):

This was a 5pm Sunday concert in the spa town of Bad Kissingen with the title Traumhaft – translation might be: dreamlike, gorgeous, wonderful. The performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with which it began was all those things. The strings open, the theme then repeated with woodwind, and immediately I was taken by the sheer beauty of the sound, the acoustic of the Regentenbau being very special. The soloist played immaculately and expressively, capable of considerable variations in dynamic, his quiet playing especially effective, and his passage work beyond criticism. The highlight was his short cadenza at the end of the central section of the slow movement, and the return of the main theme above very quiet string accompaniment – absolutely spellbinding.

Critical response to each of Bruckner’s three versions of his Third Symphony has been varied, many commentators feeling confident enough of their own judgement to point out faults in the constitution of the symphony. However, the first version was perfect enough to receive a dedication from and a copy to be sent to Richard Wagner. The second version was made ready for performance, published, and later, when Bruckner began to revise it, was told by no less than Gustav Mahler that it was perfect, not a note should be changed. The third version was produced during that collaborative period of the late 1880s with Franz and Josef Schalk. In 1893 Bruckner instructed conductor Hermann Levi to ignore the previous, second, version as this one was ‘incomparably improved’. And this version gave the symphony considerable success during the composer’s lifetime and was the version by which the symphony gained a place in the repertoire of orchestras worldwide.

The three versions might be seen as stages on the composer’s life’s way. With its vast proportions and monumental pacing, Bruckner found his very individual voice as a symphonist as he wrote the first version. Although all three start from the same place – that mysterious web of sound in the strings through which the magnificent trumpet theme sounds – the first version ends in an excited celebration of that theme whereas the two later versions head for a resounding major key grand unison statement of the theme’s opening four notes. The journey to that mighty affirmative destination in the second version enjoys some brighter melodic elements and discards the splendid Wagnerian climax of the 1873 Adagio in favour of an Andante proportionately much more occupied by the lyrical second theme group material. This version was accomplished by the composer in the midst of his symphonic career, working on his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. By the time of the third version Bruckner had had great successes with the Seventh Symphony and Te Deum, had written the first version of the Eighth, had done some work on his Ninth, and it takes a more severe, direct path to the close, even more unwilling to explore peripheral diversions along the way.

The general point I make here is that all three versions have their own time and place and their own validity: a conductor doesn’t have to justify choosing one version rather than another and it is pointless for a listener to choose to have their enjoyment undermined by a preference for a version other than the one being performed. They share thematic material but they are three great symphonies each with something different to say.

Gerd Schaller conducts the Philharmonie Festiva

Certainly the Philharmonie Festiva played the second version of the Third in this concert as though they really meant it, with power and urgency. Suddenly you could understand why the audience at its premiere might have found it quite scandalous, and even why Eduard Hanslick was inspired to make his comment about Beethoven 9 meeting the Valkyries and being trampled under their horses’ hooves. The symphony Bruckner had fashioned in 1877 sounded in this performance quite revolutionary, at times relentless and often very loud and noisy. The acoustic at the Regentenbau is first class,  something revealed immediately in the first half of the concert where the Mozart Clarinet Concerto had sounded so very beautiful (due in part also to Jochen Tschabrun’s virtuosity). There was immense clarity together with a rounded sound, nothing too dry or abrasive, so Bruckner’s very individual orchestration and dramatic dynamics were presented without compromise.

Gerd Schaller directed a mighty, urgent performance that swept through the work like a great wave, within the course of which he was still able to give attention to expressive shaping of the smaller scale ripples and eddies. The tempos throughout kept the music moving, the conductor taking note of Bruckner’s direction – mehr bewegt – [rather animated], so that the big unison climax of the first movement was enlivened by a degree of passionate urgency rather than aspiring to monumental grandeur. Indeed, throughout the performance there were few moments of repose, and some of Bruckner’s pauses were perhaps briefer than noted in the score. Even the close of the exposition, with its ppp falling octaves from the first horn above ppp string chords, seemed still to carry the sense of forward movement rather than settle into a moment of stasis. It was an approach that delivered a very exciting performance, with some mighty dramatic moments – I was particularly taken by the big build up that closes the second theme group recapitulation, with its lively trumpet interpolation, the whole paragraph played with gripping intensity.

Bewegt is also written in the tempo instructions for the Andante and Gerd Schaller never let the music lose its momentum, introducing the main theme, marked quasi Adagio, at a flowing pace. It did mean that the contrast with the triple time second theme, quasi Allegretto, was a little underplayed, and the third theme not quite as ‘misterioso’ as it could have been – though misterioso is not so easy to do in this very forward acoustic. But the advantage of the approach was not merely to hold the unity of the movement together, but also to place it consistently within the animated interpretation of the symphony as a whole. The fortissimo statement of the movement’s main theme by the brass, accompanied by descending triplet scales on woodwind and strings, burst explosively upon us (bar 198), the following passage, the climax of the movement, with its sudden contrasts in dynamic, had immense power. By contrast the brief coda descended very movingly into peaceful quiet, soft repetitions from clarinets and violas.

The short Scherzo was as exciting as always, enhanced by strong work from the timpanist, and the Trio, an almost unchanging centre among the changes Bruckner wrought on the other movements, had just the right dance-derived emphasis and lilt to the viola theme to make it very beguiling. Schaller chose to play the somewhat raucous coda which Bruckner had written after the disastrous first performance, but never included it in the published score. I enjoyed it and it seemed to be at one with the conductor’s overall approach to the work.

When he wrote the loud, often brash and raucous themes for the first and third theme groups of the finale, what sort of symphonic movement could he have had in mind? Well, it is an Allegro – something fast-paced and exciting, full of drama and dynamic contrast, set off by a polka and chorale combination, and in this performance by the Philharmonie Festiva it came across as a very excited and uncompromising celebration of orchestral sound, full of energy and vitality, quite unstoppable, only relieved by occasional passages of retreat, such as the wind-down of the polka-chorale theme, or of what might be inward reflectiveness, such as the pizzicato passage at the end of the development – before the main theme bursts in again for its recapitulation without even the courtesy of an introductory crescendo. There are three significant pizzicato passages in this version of the symphony, in the first movement a moment of inwardness before the climb to the climax commences, in the slow movement a similarly meditative pizzicato accompaniment to woodwinds at the beginning of the return of the main theme before its build up to the movement’s climax, and this one in the Finale. Each one is a quiet prelude to a passage of high drama, and each was played with perfect unanimity and great expressive sensitivity by the strings of the Philharmonie Festiva.

The recapitulation over and into the silence there is, as though it had been waiting patiently in the wings, a quiet reminiscence of the second theme, song-period, of the first movement. How extraordinary that is. And then you notice the low strings are climbing, climbing, and at the summit: a trumpet fanfare – and the apotheosis is delivered, D major tutti transfiguration of the opening trumpet theme, all this accomplished in tempo and with tremendous aplomb by Gerd Schaller and his orchestra. It was an exhilarating evening, a great concert.

The same team have already recorded the first version (in an 1874 variant) and the third version of the symphony, and this performance was being recorded and will take its place in Gerd Schaller’s now almost complete Bruckner cycle, Bruckner2024, released on CD Profil Edition Günter Hänssler.

Ken Ward

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