The Gramophone Choice
Symphony No 3 (1873 version)
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra / Sir Roger Norrington
Hänssler Classic CD93 217 (61’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Since he first recorded the symphony in 1995 (for EMI), Sir Roger has modified his tempo in the first movement. His brisk though no longer over-quick tempo works superbly with and through the spare, pellucid, finely honed texturing he draws from the Stuttgart orchestra, an ensemble which under his guidance has brought the art of playing modern instruments in old ways to a new pitch of excellence. There are wind and string sonorities here such as you would expect to hear in music of the Baroque period, something that suits early Bruckner especially well.
The vibrato-free Stuttgart strings play with a purity and simplicity that merit the epithet Cistercian. There are spellbinding moments of quiet at the start and finish of the first-movement development and throughout the slow movement (a requiem, in part, for Bruckner’s lately deceased mother). The all-in-one Scherzo and Trio is also bewitchingly done, fiery but with grace and charm to spare.
One thing Sir Roger has not modified is his quickfire treatment of the finale’s second theme: the counterpointing of polka and chorale inspired by Bruckner’s experience of hearing dance music issuing from a house while nearby a revered colleague lay in his coffin. Karl Böhm in his wonderfully idiomatic VPO recording of the 1889 version (Decca) takes this at a leisurely 52 bars per minute, the usual pace for a Polka française (as opposed to Schnell-Polka) in Viennese ballrooms at the time. That reservation aside, this is a touching and exhilarating new account of the Third.
Symphony No 3 (1889 Nowak edition)
Mozarteum Orchestra, Salzburg / Ivor Bolton
Oehms OC722 (58’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Though you might wonder at the idea of the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra playing Bruckner, they have been doing so for many years. Joseph Schröcksnadel’s history of the orchestra reproduces a poster from July 1928 advertising a performance of the Fifth Symphony conducted by Bernhard Paumgartner in the Cathedral Square. In 2004 Ivor Bolton took over as music director, and judging by this excellent 2007 Bruckner Third, it would seem that he has made a difference.
The deftness and buoyancy with which the opening string ostinatos are realised indicate qualities of grace and manoeuvrability that more than make up for the fact that the orchestra will never command the weight or fire-power of, say, Böhm’s Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble that also brings to the third- and fourth-movement dance subjects a properly Austrian tread.
There have been outstanding versions of this 1889 version from Wand, Karajan, Böhm and others besides. However, with few of these surviving as single-CD releases, this admirable new Oehms CD might be said to have the market at its mercy.