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Which Bruckner to perform? Three choices at hand for Third Symphony

Does the version of a Bruckner symphony used make any difference in the impact of its performance? Recent live and recorded encounters with three versions of the Third Symphony afforded a unique chance to explore the work in all its incarnations and to experience the final version - the one most usually performed - in Avery Fisher Hall.

For many listeners, Bruckner is neither as pithy and tuneful as Beethoven nor as neurotic and theatrical as Mahler. Bruckner always viewed his works as mighty wrestlings with the great issue of man's (or at least his) relationship to his God. The wrestling became more profound, more anguished as the symphonies moved ahead in number and expanded in overall size.

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Bruckner's peasantlike simplicity put him at odds with the society of Vienna, his adopted home. He was scorned by many for worshiping Wagner, whom he considered his musical mentor. Wagner occasionally acted condescendingly toward him and probably never knew that Bruckner's knowledge of Wagner's operas was limited to piano transcriptions without a word of text. The Third Symphony is not only dedicated to Wagner, but the 1873 version incorporated musical quotes in its structural framework.

On his own, Bruckner was an assured composer who trusted his unique musical vision. When surrounded by his friends, however, he vacillated terribly and was all too vulnerable to those well-meaning allies who insisted on huge cuts to make the music more palatable to the general public.

Between the 1873 version and the 1890 one, Bruckner's pruning amounted to deforestation: The finale alone lost 269 measures. Now that all three versions are finally available on compact disc, home listeners can decide for themselves whether the revisions are improvements or compromises.

To me, the 1890 edition has always sounded pithy to a fault, and indeed, with so much taken out - 412 measures in all - musical events occur without preparation, and the resolutions always seem unnecessarily abrupt. That said, the magnificent reading by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon digital, CD 413 362-2) makes as strong a case for the version as I've ever heard. It is an extraordinary Bruckner recording. Karajan seems to inhabit every last phrase and bring it to life from its profoundest core. The few traces of Wagner are deftly highlighted. And as a piece of engineering, this release is a blazing achievement as well.

To hear Karajan's recording after Stanislaw Skrowacewski's live performance with the New York Philharmonic may have been a disservice to the latter, yet Skrowacewski's compelling, rough-hewn, struggle-filled account of the work made its points with power and conviction, proving that on its own terms, the work can be gripping in the concert hall. As with Karajan, he believes in this version and knows how to make it work. Naturally, this is crucial to any great performance of a Bruckner symphony.

How nice it would be to hear either Karajan or Skrowacewski tackle the original 1873 version. As heard on its world premi`ere recording, ably conducted by Elihu Inbal with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Teldec digital, CD 8.42922), the work emerges clearly as the first true precursor to Bruckner's expansive, episodic, mature style. Even here, the eye is always on the triumph at the end, as he unfolds the terrors that must be worked through before that end deserves to be achieved.

Though Inbal amply proves that this version ought to join the Bruckner canon as the Third of choice, he is not a true Brucknerian. The entire enterprise lacks the thrust and fervor of Karajan's or the raw drama of Skrowacewski's. All those blocks of sound, those odd little musical asides and self-interruptions that comprise Bruckner's way, need to be put forth with the unerring belief that each phrase has profound meaning if the listener is to perceive the overall framework. This Inbal fails to achieve.

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In the 1877 revision, Bruckner eliminated the major Wagner quotes (though hints remain in both this and the 1890 version). As conducted in the Oeser edition by Rafael Kubelik at the helm of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (CBS Masterworks, digital CD, MK 39033), the piece retains the drama and a certain sense of the expansiveness of structure.

Unfortunately, along the way, many of the most imaginative episodes have been either truncated or deleted, lending a hint of betrayal when the last bars finally ring out. Kubelik's is a genial, meditative reading that could be accused of shirking the drama, while giving full justice to the spiritual message of the score. He makes an effective case for considering this a compromise between the two extremes, ideal for those who sincerely believe that in this case, Bruckner's inspiration was too fertile.

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