Bruckner Third Symphony from François-Xavier Roth

A superb performance of a fascinating symphony

Bruckner Third Symphony from François-Xavier Roth

Versions, and editions, of Bruckner symphonies can be a minefield, arguably nowhere more so than in the Third Symphony, where there is a minimum of 8 (eight!) different versions: the original version of 1873 (not published until 1977); the first revision (1874, also unpublished); 1876; a third revision, published in 1878 as the first edition (used for the premiere); a ‘Fritz Oeser’ edition of 1877; and two other versions from 1889, one edited by Nowak. Some even mix and match - sometimes successfully, as in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Hyperion recording under Osmo Vänskä. The link to the cheaper reissue for this is below (I wrote the official Amazon review for the original full-price recording).

Live performances are relatively few on the ground, although I do remember a fine Prom by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly in 1988 (Prom 52, September 2, with Radu Lupu in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19 in the first half, with Idomeneo Overture as opener).

François-Xavier Roth often offers period-instrument performances, such as he did in his remarkable Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande recording, with his group Les Siècles (a combination that impressed at last year's Proms in stunning performances of Ligeti and Mozart): see my review. My whole-page review of the Debussy can be found in the May 2022 issue of Opera Now magazine, p. 60,

Here he is with the Gürzenich-Orchester, Köln, an ensemble with a long and distinguished history; but he brings period performance practice to bear. The low vibrato on the strings in the Adagio is a case in point, period instrument practice taken over into a modern instrument performance, which you can hear below. And yet how the movement grows to magisterial climaxes - massive statement whose chords never blur thanks to Roth's superbly analytical ear. The movement was Witten in memory the composer's mother, and how eloquently it speaks:

The work's climaxes retain huge power. Remember this is the so-called “Wagner” Symphony - Bruckner quotes Tristan, and this is one of the scores he took to the Meister of Bayreuth in September 1873 (not quite completed at that point). The first version was only available in printed edition in 1977, but what a score it is! The first movement emerges as majestic under Roth, with the climaxes losing none other power under his clean approach. Recorded over concerts from September 11-13, 2022 at the Philharmonie in Cologne, this has alter precision of a studio account matched with the intensity of live performance:

The Scherzo blazes, six minutes of pure fire contrasted with a lyricism that is nevertheless underpinned with flames. And how one hears the detail of the lower strings at speed!:

The is but one example of the preternatural care that has clearly been put into this performance, and the superb recording allows every nuance to speak.

The finale is a tricky movement, both in performative and interpretative terms. Roth and his Cologne forces nail both, relishing the moments when the music threatens to dissolve, finding curiosity in the moments of disjunction of lines. Rarely if ever has there been such clarity, and the Philharmonie's acoustic supports Roth's clarity of purpose (many performances miss the excitement of Bruckner's writing when he makes it sound as if themes are chasing each other in very close succession - not this one):

There are some remarkable textures and colours in this movement that one would struggle to find elsewhere in Bruckner's output, set alongside his characteristic monumentalism (it would be traditional to mention cathedrals in sound at this point). The final peroration is awe-inspiring.

A superb performance of a fascinating symphony. This disc is touchingly dedicated to the loving memory of the Gürzenich Orchester's co-principal viola player since 2006, Susanne Duven, who passed away after a testing illness on May 31, 2023.

Previously on Classical Explorer, we have covered Roth in Stravinsky ballets on Harmonia Mundi and Mahler's Fourth Symphony.