The layout is sensible; on each disc a Wagner piece precedes a Bruckner Symphony, and – with applause removed (these are concert performances, with some annoying coughs and noises-off remaining) – the quiet endings segue nicely into Bruckner’s beginnings. And it’s the Wagner choices that receive the finer performances. Siegfried Idyll is literally breathed into life by Andris Nelsons, cueing the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to commune with the music, bringing a very expressive beauty and contentment, ravishing the listener’s senses with a mix of poignancy and poetry (the latter characteristic suggesting gentle breezes and palm trees) and further enhanced by a finely-judged array of dynamics: twenty-one minutes of bliss. The Prelude to Parsifal (an opera that Wagner decreed to be a Bühnenweihfestspiel, one translation being “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”; he meant Bayreuth) is no-less affecting: made suitably significant and also ethereal (radiant strings) and, via some resplendent brass-playing, also stirring.
Of the Symphonies, the three-movement Ninth (i.e. unfinished, lacking a Finale, although numerous other hands have since effected one) is a somewhat disjointed affair. The opening movement needs a little more tying-together and, paradoxically, breathing space (a flexible wholeness, if you will); not that it should always be Giulini-esque or Celibidachian, or indeed, bearing in mind his expansive Bavarian Radio taping, akin to Maazel. The slight amiss with Nelsons’s approach to Bruckner’s Feierlich (Solemnly) is that he plays-down the composer’s visionary exploration of harmony and timbre; furthermore he can linger or more likely (with a suggestion of impatience) press ahead. Plenty of power though when required, and a care for detail and a variety of volumes are certainly within Nelsons’s gift; but overall it’s episodic and also short on Bruckner’s designated misterioso. The Scherzo doesn’t quite stamp enough, slightly tame – it’s a hairsbreadth shortfall, mind – whereas the Trio is superbly brought off, a spot-on Schnell, light on its feet yet with a macabre undertow, and just the right amount of yearning. The Adagio is a further highpoint – intensely moulded, darkly searching and deeply personal in Farewell, with the contrasts of trepidation, then going boldly to a luminous benediction (the latter’s glowing strings anticipating Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia) – all geared to a grinding/dissonant climax for the full agony-and-ecstasy effect ... where next? I hope Bruckner reached Heaven.
His Sixth is overall the more impressive Leipzig account. It opens with promise, the Morse-code idea crisp, violins are antiphonal, the (left-positioned) basses are potent (and well-captured by Everett Porter’s engineering, whether they are stalking, punctuating, or offering the quietest of pianissimo pizzicatos). One might look for a tempo a little nearer to Bruckner’s Majestoso (DG has Maestoso, maybe Nowak altered the marking), but Nelsons’s impetus is attractive (I have heard quicker, ruinously) and there is no lack of ardour or wonderment. It’s the slow movement that (again) clinches the deal, a truly Adagio traversal of eloquence and profundity, although just a little more presence for the (funereal?) timpani strokes would have been welcome – Solti in Chicago is an exemplar here and his Decca version would probably be my first choice for this so-special Symphony. The Scherzo has plenty of drive without sacrificing rhythmic precision and swing (although I love Colin Davis’s deliberation, LSO Live) and, at a more-relaxed tempo than usual, the Trio comes across as beguiling pastoral. For the Finale, Nelsons is totally attuned to its energy, lyrical asides, dance and dreams – regarding the latter aspect, maybe he wallows too much from 6:40 to a minute later, but Bruckner’s sorrowful soul is captured in the most affecting way. The coda is thrillingly resolute.