No glitz, no speeches for the second of the two inauguration concerts of Lorin Maazel’s music directorship with the Munich Philharmonic—just music. Wagner and Bruckner: the Tannhäuser Prelude and Venusberg music, Tristan & Isolde Prelude and Liebestod, and then Bruckner’s Third Symphony. One last run-through before the orchestra is off to Lucerne to impress abroad.
They should impress, because as opposed to the spotty first night with Mahler Ninth, this second evening was thoroughly satisfactory.
In the Tannhäuser-music Maazel indulged in some v e r y slow tempos, but even with a plodding, didactic element, this was quite effective and gave the horns and trombones a good workout. If deliberate accents dominated the rustic Prelude, the musical intercourse of the Venusberg music was more nervous flitter than outright lusty or sensual heaving. From its midst, unsoiled by all the erotic shenanigans, emerged the gorgeous clarinet again and again. For the finale Maazel worked up an extraordinary frenzy and managed for the music to sound surprisingly much like a cousin of Les préludes. Slowly, steadily, solidly, and unerring, the Tristan & Isolde music was well paced and only that last bit of a sense of devastation away from satisfying the pickiest set of ears.
Is Bruckner’s Third Symphony underrated? Certainly among what many a conductor and listener considers the proper symphonic canon of Bruckner, which starts with the Third (skipping Double-Zero, Zero, the First, and the Second), it takes a backseat along with the very unjustly neglected “saucy” Sixth and the surreptitiously grand Fifth. It’s unlikely the quality of the music that makes the Third receive short shrift. Perhaps the explanation lies in the myriad of different versions that are available (see side-bar). There are three versions, each in various editions, and an abandoned Adagio floating about. A conductor might like to conduct the 1877 version in the Oeser edition, but the orchestra’s parts are the 1889 version in the Nowak edition… rehearsal time is limited, what the heck, let’s all just do the Fourth Symphony again.
One thing is sure, whichever version a conductor does, they’re likely to be damned by somebody. Play the revised editions and you hear about butchering the work. “The late versions must be considered hatchet jobs; anyone who knows the Original Version cannot possibly stand the later ones.” (Eliahu Inbal) Play the long, sprawling Original Version with its intact and more obvious Wagner quotations, and some critic will wonder in print if it is “at all musically justifiable to perform this dragging, spalling music”. Or ruminate about not trusting Bruckner’s revisions and thereby ‘knowing it better’ than the composer, no matter how much he was advised from well-meaning friends. And if you play any yet different version, you will probably get it for trying to be gratuitously different.
The Munich Philharmonic is probably one of the few orchestras that has played just about every version of this Symphony in its—the orchestra’s and the symphony’s—history. When last played under Christian Thielemann it was the 1873 "Original Version". Lorin Maazel has always conducted the third, final, 1889 Version. Not as Wagner-sodden, not as fragmented, and most importantly not as long, it’s by all means a more cohesive version of this Symphony. Not necessarily superior, but easier to pull off, and hardly the butchery Bruckner-originalists like to make it out to be. When played as terrifically, as orderly, with the kind of might and that penchant for glorious noise that Maazel displayed on this occasion, it is an extremely effective work. It contains all the kernels of the Bruckner style, much like Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony contains all the music that was to come later in his symphonies. Maazel had performed the same program with the orchestra last December, and the response to the Bruckner then was, to put it kindly, lacking enthusiasm. It can’t have been anything like on Friday night then: With an empathetic Adagio at the heart of this performance exuded all the elegance and drive and commitment necessary for real excellence.