Thank goodness for webcasts, and time-zones! Radiating world-wide from my London seat, I had just been in Berlin for Bruckner 2 (Paavo Järvi) and a few hours later I was in Detroit for another Bruckner Symphony, the Third, with Kent Nagano. The surprise, apart from learning that the DSO has played Bruckner 3 only once before (January 1974 with Aldo Ceccato), was that Nagano was conducting the final version of it. 1889 is generally considered the least satisfactory of the three main editions (previously 1873 and 1877, although it is even knottier than that in terms of various publications and editors), for Nagano does conduct the (in every sense) Original Version – he did so in London in 2002. Of course, during the two decades that have elapsed, he may have changed his mind, or, like say Vladimir Jurowski and Christian Thielemann, he embraces different engravings of the same Symphony. Amazing though that some alleged experts, such as during the interval chat here, still cite that Bruckner wrote nine Symphonies when the starting point is eleven, the unnumbered F-minor and D-minor examples put out to grass; plus alternative realisations/wholesale changes of much of the rest and it's at least twenty Symphonies at a quick count.
Anyway, it was an excellent performance, near to matching Karl Böhm’s yardstick Decca take, the most convincing recording that I know of the questionable 1889 score, and the DSO caught up with #3 in grand style. The opening had poise, and some gravitas, Hunter Eberly blew a golden trumpet, Karl Pituch a mountaintop horn, the DSO was sonorous, and Nagano’s approach was agreeably elastic, long lines relished. Such expanse suits Bruckner, especially the inner sanctums of the first movement; maybe though Nagano went too far with their savouring, but better this than being metronomic and unimaginative.
There was much to admire about Nagano’s poised way with the first movement and the opening of the slow one was hushed eloquence personified, the tiny reference to Tristan plain to hear (all that remains of what used to be Bruckner’s quotation-studded ‘Wagner’ Symphony, save perhaps for a sliver of Valkyrie ‘Magic Fire’ in the Finale); Nagano’s plaintive and passionate (volatile) way with this Adagio very affecting. The Scherzo and Finale have their dance elements, respectively a Ländler Trio and a Polka; get those right, like Böhm (the Vienna Philharmonic of course knows the steps innately), and you’re in business; Nagano was outdoors-playful with the Trio, the Scherzo itself stamping vitally and also singing. The orchestra tuning following the Scherzo seemed inopportune, but when the Finale did start it was sizzling (the opening measures being the best orchestrated of the three editions), the Polka charming, but the 1889 adaptation of this movement is ultimately too cut-and-paste, a hatchet job; nevertheless Nagano led an honourable traversal, the DSO valiant, the brass resounding at the end.
For the concert’s first half it was straight into Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto – popular, yes, and pianists queue to play it, but not as inspired as the Second. One drawback to the Third’s success are those renditions that take it too fast, which trivialises the music, or dragging the slower sections to make them indulgent and pompous (a competing Alexander Malofeev managed both extremes the other day in Beijing, link below).
Step forward Beatrice Rana. She offered brilliance without haste and shapeliness devoid of rhetoric. Crisp, clear and even in the first movement, percussive when needed, not pounding, never crude, and avoiding increases in speed as if trying to beat the lights turning red: this was an amber-green journey, articulate, one that found a welcome element of fantasy – elevating this music to a level that rarely occurs; no using and abusing here. Droll characterisation informed the contrasts of the second movement – with time given to suggest a narrative; Rana knows how to tell a story. Nagano and the DSO were alert and sympathetic, and the Finale managed (more or less) to marry the fleet and drawn-out sections – the spacious central episode can seem preposterously overblown (just about avoided here) and the push to the conclusion was decisive without going into overdrive. At no point did Rana seek to dominate yet her playing shone through at every turn – the performance I have been waiting for, for many years (although Alexei Volodin got close, Royal Festival Hall, March 2013), and her Chopin encore (F-sharp Prelude, Opus 28/13, marked Lento) was exquisite.