Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s concert of Wagner (Overture to Tannhauser and Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde) and Bruckner (3rd Symphony) at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, provided as much food for thought as it did of emotion. The emotional intensity of their performance of the Wagner was almost unbearable, and yet one longed for it to be prolonged. While the performance of the Bruckner could not be faulted, its exhaustive content made it exhausting – not for nothing has this work had a chequered history – and made one wonder about its composition and musical history.
Of course a great deal of thought had clearly gone into the programming. The Overture to Tannhauser was first performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn: Mathilde Wesendonck heard this performed during Wagner’s years in Zurich, became his muse soon after, and their love affair was Wagner’s inspiration for the libretto of Tristan and Isolde. On the other hand, Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony is often known as his ‘Wagner Symphony’ because he dedicated it to Wagner. The story goes that Bruckner had shown the scores of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies to Wagner, asking the latter which one he preferred, during a bout of beer-drinking that was allegedly so extensive that he forgot Wagner’s answer and had to ask him again if it was indeed the 3rd Symphony, ‘where the trumpet begins the theme’; Wagner responded in the affirmative, and referred to Bruckner thereafter as ‘Bruckner the trumpet’. From a historical point of view, the programming of these three works together was certainly thoughtful; had the musical overlap between them been as strong, it would also have been thought-(and- emotion)-provoking.
Musically, the first half of the programme was undeniably the superior. Both Tristan and Isolde and Tannhauser are underpinned by the same kind of dramatic conflict, that of love which is irreconcilable with itself, with its embedding in the real world; the evolutions are however, somewhat different. In the former, a doomed love leads the lovers to seek spiritual union in death,while in the latter, Tannhauser’s continuing vacillation between sensuality and spirituality leads to death being the only possible resolution of his predicament. This difference was conveyed with great subtlety by the orchestra under Nelsons. In the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde , the woodwinds’ poignantly delayed resolution of the ‘Tristan chord’ gave way first to rich echoes from the strings, and then to a pianissimo that melted into silence; the warm trombone solo of the Liebestod (Transfiguration) followed, which dissolved into waves of progressive surrender washed in by harps and violins, until the finality of the climactic resolution. In the Overture to Tannhauser , it was the turn of the brass sections to take the lead, which they did masterfully in the opening chorale, the theme of the Pilgrim’s Chorus, ceding to the strings in the Venusian interlude, and returning, as if from a distance, in the final triumph of spirit over sense, mind over matter. The physicality of Nelsons’ conducting style – jumping, gesturing wildly, bent over at obtuse angles with arms flailing – didn’t seem overdone in the least, since every movement was needed to ensure the weaving together of sectional complexities into a seamless and sublime emotional narrative.
Nelsons’ conducting and the orchestra’s playing were no less outstanding in the Bruckner: but in this case the whole was less than the sum of its parts not because of the performers, but because of the composition itself. Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony, while a turning point in his artistic style, is far away from the architectural magnificence of his later symphonies: it has variously been described as ‘motley’, ‘formless’, and ‘peculiar’, with a particularly caustic critic writing ‘Bruckner’s poetic intentions were not clear to us – perhaps a vision of Beethoven’s Ninth becoming friendly with Wagner’s Valkyries and finishing up being trampled under their hooves’. Bruckner breaks several compositional rules in this work, to the point that listeners begin to realise the musical importance of the rules themselves; such as not having too much unison, too much canonic imitation or too many consecutive octaves, especially when these are played fortissimo by the brass. That Bruckner was himself not very comfortable with it (or the repeated failures of its performances) is reflected in the fact that it exists in several versions, written between 1873 and 1889 (we heard the 1878 version); unfortunately, unlike in the case of his classicist rival Brahms, these revisions rarely resulted in a greater economy of expression.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra showed immense dedication and competence, despite the enormous physical demands of this somewhat unrewarding work, where only the Adagio adequately showed off their musicality. Unlike the Wagnerian first half of the programme and despite the brilliance of the orchestra and their conductor Andris Nelsons, the complex architecture of the Bruckner stayed complex and somewhat stodgy, with no emergence of the simplicity, the lightness of being, that makes music memorable.