We don’t hear Anton Bruckner’s “mature” symphonies — Nos. 4 through 9 — played very often. And we’re lucky to hear the earlier symphonies — 00 (Studiensinfonie), 1, 0 (Die Nullte), 2, and 3 — played at all. So kudos to Nathaniel Meyer and the Boston Bruckner Festival for serving up the magisterial Third last Friday. Given in humid, challenging weather at the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square, the free performance was problematic in its execution but raised crucial questions about Bruckner interpretation.
It also raised the inevitable question of performing version. Some Bruckner symphonies, like 6 and 7, exist in essentially one version. For the Third, however, we have at least three. And nothing could be more original than the original version. Completed in 1873 and dedicated to Richard Wagner, it’s an extravagant, rambling work rampant with ideas and incorporating allusions to the Miserere from Bruckner’s own Mass in D minor as well as to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Walküre. Bruckner wrote this version from the perspective of an organist changing registrations, so rather than an interwoven orchestral texture, we get periodic sections with pauses, massive blocks that the composer carves and recarves, using inversion, augmentation, and canon in ever-changing harmonic colors. It’s complicated, it’s daring, and at some points — the first violins’ syncopated semiquavers in the Adagio — it’s practically unplayable.
Certainly the Vienna Philharmonic, after an attempt at rehearsal, didn’t want to play it. Over the next few years Bruckner revised the symphony, removing most of the Wagner allusions (which in any case were not obtrusive) and altering the architectural proportions — not necessarily for the better — by telescoping developments and recapitulations. Even the “misterioso” quality of the opening bars was sacrificed. The premiere of this 1877 version, which Bruckner had to conduct himself after the sudden death of Johann von Herbeck, was a popular and critical disaster.
In 1889, with the help of his pupils Franz and Josef Schalk, he created yet another major revision. (There were some minor ones along the way, including a different Adagio in 1876.) The second movement, marked “Andante: Bewegt, feierlich, quasi Adagio” in 1877, became “Adagio: Bewegt, quasi Andante.” The symphony became shorter still: the finale was truncated from its original 764 bars down to 495. To what extent the Schalks interfered with, rather than implemented, Bruckner’s vision is an ongoing topic for debate. From one perspective, the 1889 version represents the composer’s attempt to rewrite the Third in what was his current, more mature style. One can argue over whether that was a good idea, as well as over whether the Schalk-inspired “improvements” didn’t simply make the symphony more commercially palatable and less Bruckner-esque.
In the 1930s, Nazi Germany annexed Bruckner; the Robert Haas editions that began to appear during this time tended to expunge the contributions of the composer’s pupils and associates (some but not all of whom were Jewish). More recently, Bruckner advocates like Leon Botstein and, especially, Benjamin Korstvedt have argued that we shouldn’t reject out of hand the editions that appeared during Bruckner’s lifetime.
With regard to the Third, most conductors continue to prefer one of the revisions. The 1877 version has been recorded by Daniel Barenboim, Michael Gielen, Bernard Haitink, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Philippe Herreweghe, Rafael Kubelik, Georg Solti, and Christian Thielemann. Those who’ve favored the 1889 version include Karl Böhm, Riccardo Chailly, Valery Gergiev, Mariss Jansons, Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, George Szell, and Klaus Tennstedt. BSO music director Andris Nelsons has done the 1889 version with the BSO and recorded it with both the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
So it’s not that Meyer isn’t in good company with his choice of the 1889 version. In his program note, moreover, he cites Korstvedt, whose research, he says, “reveals that the style of performance in the late 19th century was quite different from the monumental, political performances that took place in the 1930s and 1940s.” Meyer continues: “Early editions of Bruckner’s music feature expressive markings and tempo modifications that had been added, in many cases with the composer’s approval, by the conductors who first premiered these works. . . . One of the goals of the Boston Bruckner Festival is to attempt to perform Bruckner’s music as it might have sounded in the composer’s time, with consideration of the performance traditions of the day, which included a flexible, rubato style as was commonly used in the 19th century. This flexibility of expression is essential to implement fully Bruckner’s sweeping romantic style.”
One factor Meyer doesn’t mention is overall tempo. What did Bruckner expect to hear? Early recordings of his symphonies — even those from Nazi Germany — are fast compared to what we usually hear today; tempos have gradually slowed over the past 80 years. (The same phenomenon can be observed in performances of Mahler.) That might suggest that those earlier, quicker tempos are what Bruckner heard when his symphonies were played.
Yet we know from letters he wrote to the conductor Hans Richter that Bruckner was distressed by performances of his symphonies that he felt were too fast. He wanted the premiere of his Eighth to run 80 minutes at a minimum; Richter took 85. The 1873 version of the Third has more measures than the Eighth, so one has to think that the 89:03 of Rémy Ballot’s Gramola recording with the Altomonte Orchester St. Florian is closer to the mark than the 57:23 of Roger Norrington’s EMI release with the London Classical Players. Which in turn would suggest that Nelsons’s 63:27 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus for the 1889 Third is by no means excessive. By contrast, Meyer sped through the 1889 version Friday in 51 minutes. That may have been the kind of tempo Bruckner heard, but it doesn’t appear to be the kind he wanted.
As for “Bruckner’s sweeping romantic style,” well, who’s more sweepingly romantic than Tchaikovsky? And yet Bruckner’s Russian contemporary was meticulous about tempo and dynamics in his scores, and when those are observed, the result is sober and measured — still sweepingly romantic, but without the hysterical excesses to which Tchaikovsky is often subjected. Bruckner doesn’t need to be whipped up either.
One last Bruckner performance consideration is the size of the orchestra. An average modern ensemble boasts a far larger string section than the one Bruckner wrote for. Norrington’s EMI recording approximates the Viennese standard of the time: 12 first violins, 12 seconds, eight violas, eight cellos, and six basses — 46 in all. Meyer had just 28 strings — seven first violins, six seconds, seven violas, five cellos, and three basses — and they struggled for the right balance against winds and brass and timpani that are supercharged compared with the instruments Bruckner wrote for. The weather didn’t help. Even though the church windows were left open, the audience of about 200 were reduced to fanning themselves with their programs.
There being no backstage, the orchestra members filed in down the center aisle, the men sensibly attired in white shirts, no jackets or ties. Meyer, who has served as musical assistant to Benjamin Zander, gave a 10-minute preconcert talk that was somewhat simplistic, describing the Adagio as “a prayer,” and the Allegro finale as “an incredible rush to the top of the mountain.” Given the stuffy conditions, he might have done better to put the talk into the program (which did provide a fair summing up of Bruckner’s life and style plus a synopsis of the Third, all from Roger Hecht). Meyer holds the baton in his left hand, the first conductor I can recall doing so since the late, great Paavo Berglund, but on Friday he used both hands to make his points.
The first movement, marked (in the 1889 edition) “Mehr langsam, Misterioso,” started badly: the string ostinatos, marked pianissimo, were too loud, crowding out the opening trumpet motif. This motif, which drops from D to A and then to D, is the symphony’s anchor; it needs to register. The descending theme for full orchestra that followed was powerful and well articulated, Meyer giving it plenty of air, but the climax was congested.
The pace throughout was swift, the movement checking in at just 20 minutes. The lyric Gesangsperiode sang sweetly, and the four-note third subject packed unusual emotion. But the brass were too often raw and the strings too often sour, balances and transitions were misjudged, and the timpani was overbearing. We got bipolar Bruckner, or Heaven-and-Hell Bruckner, with nothing in between. Black-and-white Bruckner in place of kaleidoscopic Bruckner.
The Adagio (“quasi Andante”), very much Andante from the start, offered the same rough edges, blatty brass, and overwrought climaxes. It was also oddly shapeless; at the end it didn’t so much conclude as stop. The “Ziemlich schnell” scherzo built to a demonic frenzy; I don’t know that this is what Bruckner had in mind, but Meyer made palpable the contrast with the naïve ländler Trio that followed. Bruckner scherzos can sound as if the composer were counting off beats. This one didn’t. It was the highlight of the evening, a glimpse of truly animated Bruckner.
The Allegro finale also created a strong contrast between the whirlwind opening and the second subject, where Bruckner layers a lively polka and a somber chorale on top of each other. Once again, though, the climaxes clotted. The mid-movement return of the trumpet motif from the first movement — an unwelcome feature of the 1889 version — stopped the finale dead, and the peroration was just noise.
Meyer’s 51 minutes was about as fast as the 1889 version gets. At a dozen minutes slower, Nelsons’s Leipzig Gewandhaus recording is just as flexible, yet it achieves the emotional impact that Meyer was striving for with far greater nuance and sophistication.
Meyer and the Bruckner Festival Orchestra will be continuing their free presentation of the symphonies at the University Lutheran Church with the Fourth on Friday August 17.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.