Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (ed. Nowak)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons (RCO Live 2 CDs: RCO09002)

6 September 2009 4 stars

BrucknerThis year has already seen several significant additions to a burgeoning Bruckner catalogue, and this bargain two-for-one from the Concertgebouw Orchestra's own label is yet another welcome release. The dream-team of the great Dutch band – recently, for what it's worth, voted the best orchestra in the world – and their Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons has produced several outstanding recordings already, and this Bruckner duo captures much of what's great about the partnership.

Jansons plumps for the revised versions of both symphonies, in the Nowak editions, and conducts them with a near ideal combination of architectural overview and delight in the specifics. Of course, particularly in highlighting those details, having an orchestra of the Concertgebouw's quality is a great help. As their recent appearance at the Proms showed, their woodwind section, in particular, seems more or less incapable of playing a phrase without instinctively bringing it to life. In both these performances, they blend together magnificently as a section but never fail to project as individuals. The brass, too, have a beautiful warmth, providing glorious moments of consolation in the chorale-like sections, as well as moments of individual excellence – the fourth's famous horn-calls are shaped with a rare tenderness.

Both performances are helped by Jansons's flexibility with tempo: he's not afraid to push forward when his instinct him tells him to, or to pull up at the climaxes, but he never lets the tension sag. As such, the unison fff that forms the climax of the first movement's development section in the third is nicely drawn out, while the same section starts with a masterfully controlled atmosphere of mystique. There's a real sense of tension at the opening of the fourth's finale, while the third's opens excitingly, before dissolving into carefully pointed lyricism. Despite maintaining the momentum of the performances, then, Jansons also encourages a lightness that's often missing in these works. The lyrical sections are always distinguished by playing of the highest quality, the counterpoint all lovingly shaped; rarely have Bruckner's gesangsvoll' markings been so well observed. The more folksy music of the trios, too, is captured extremely well, as are the rustic touches in the fourth's finale (around 3'40), with a rhythmic bounce to show how Bruckner was just as adept in reflecting the more modest side of life.

The long first movements of each symphony are both beautifully paced, and Jansons's way in the slow movements – the third's Adagio and the fourth's Andante quasi allegretto – give further eloquent evidence of his quality as a Brucknerian. The third's is impassioned and moving, its final couple of minutes particularly good, while the well controlled emotional coolness that starts the fourth's gives way to a well-judged build-up to its heart.

One reservation might regard the fact that there are times when Jansons's approach can be a little smooth, lacking that final ounce of excitement, and while the sound on these present discs is more vivid than some earlier RCO live releases, it still has a slight tendency to blunt the edges. Nevertheless, Jansons successfully captures the paradoxical mixture of monumentality and spiritual intimacy that makes these symphonies such favourites, whilst revelling in their moments of earthy enjoyment. At bargain price, such well-played accounts are difficult not to recommend.

By Hugo Shirley