David Fray, piano; VSO/ Michael Sanderling, Works by Wagner, Bruckner and Mendelssohn, Orpheum, March 3, 2018.


The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has not performed Bruckner frequently over the years, and it would be difficult to say that it has yet established its credentials as a Bruckner orchestra. In the past five years, it has done the popular Fourth Symphony (Bramwell Tovey) and the Seventh Symphony twice (Mark Wigglesworth, James Gaffigan). Enter Michael Sanderling, stepson of the great German conductor Kurt Sanderling (1912-2011), and part of a remarkable family that includes maestros Thomas and Stefan as well. With the legacy of these musicians, one cannot help but step right into the Brucknerian heartland.  And so it proved in this performance of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, sounding more authentic, sheerly beautiful, and spaciously majestic than any Bruckner performance we have yet encountered. The sound of the orchestra even took on a Central European glow, which is possibly not surprising since Michael Sanderling is currently music director of the Dresden Philharmonic.


Sanderling’s opening Wagner Die Meistersinger Prelude was distinctive, taken fairly quickly and replacing some of the work’s assertion and weight with a fluidity of motion and phrase. Two things were immediately noteworthy: first, how much the younger maestro’s conducting posture actually resembled his father’s; and, second, how differently the VSO sounded. The sound was fuller in the midrange, more integrated throughout, and the full-orchestra climaxes seemed to find a naturally resplendent breadth and weight.  In contrast to the customary North American layout, Sanderling set up the cellos in front, center-left, the basses just behind, the violas conventionally front center-right, with the first and second violins split far left and far right respectively. The brass had its standard placement at the rear, although it is interesting that, in the Bruckner, the brass seemed to form sort of an integrated choral ‘wall’. The splitting of first and second violins is of course a hallmark of classical practice.

Bruckner’s Third Symphony has always been a challenge, difficult to assess and interpret, and it has likely received the smallest number of ‘great’ recordings of any of the composer’s symphonies. As an early composition, its undoubted importance is that it introduces compositional principles that come into play in the composer’s later (and greater) symphonies, yet the work’s dedication to Wagner, and its designation as ‘A Wagner Symphony’, often proves confusing. While its orchestration and grandness of reach may pay a debt to Wagner, the structural core of the work still fundamentally derives from Beethoven and the lyrical style of Schubert. The further confounding problem is all the different editions, since this is a score where the inimitable Franz Schalk advised copious cuts and adjustments at the time of original performance. While Eliahu Inbal, Bernard Haitink, and Georg Tintner have explored earlier editions (1873 and 1877) with insight, Michael Sanderling conventionally opts for the third and final 1889 edition of the score, published by Leopold Nowak in 1959, which retains cuts in the finale.


The defining feature of Sanderling’s performance was his patience with Bruckner’s characteristic stop-go style, always letting the work breathe, appreciating the beauty in the composer’s lyrical paragraphs, and letting the huge climaxes build out of a natural preexisting flow. In the first movement, there can easily be a temptation to push to climaxes too strongly. Sanderling made a considerable effort to scale down dynamics at points – to give the tremolos and ostinato figures time to register their mystery – and this decision always allowed the orchestral peaks to come forth with genuine breadth and nobility. The conducting always found telling musical space, keen detailing, and a sense of architecture. The conductor’s assimilation of Ländler style also secured dividends in many places, cultivating a natural lyrical pacing and eloquence. A particularly fine expressive string line distinguished the Adagio, often finding moments of real tenderness, intimacy and beauty. In the Scherzo, one noted the idiomatic treatment of the rustic dance rhythms, with the notes in the phrases judiciously separated to create the appropriate rhythmic bounce. And, again in the finale, where power, urgency and the same piquant rustic charm mingle together to great effect. There was absolutely no doubt about the sheer majesty of the work’s close but it was the contrasting sense of lyrical intimacy and the conductor’s unerring pacing throughout the movement that made the final brass statements so nobly commanding and spiritually uplifting. 

The work ended with the feeling that any worthy Bruckner performance must achieve: as a resolution of a long and complex journey, cohering in an almost indescribable way, and manifesting a surpassing spiritual strength and glow. At least, that is the feeling I had, and it has been a while since I followed a Brucknerian narrative with as much concentration as this.  This was a most sensitive and compelling reading from a conductor fully absorbed in his understanding and love of this composer. There can be no higher compliment than that.


The orchestra outdid itself in most departments: the upper strings always displayed a fine expressive pliability and sheen and I was quite taken with the talents of the (separated) second violins; the lower strings were rhythmically astute and provided an eloquent, warm anchor to the sound; the winds were more dynamically sensitive than usual, and the brass, though not Vienna strong, made their mark as a fully cooperative and balanced team that listened to each other. The ensemble always marshalled appropriate strength in the climaxes, but it was the orchestra’s overall cohesion and tonal blend that impressed as much.

It would be remiss to not mention the Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto that was performed before the Bruckner. Here we saw the young French pianist David Fray, a noted Bach exponent and originally the winner of Second Grand Prize at the 2004 Montreal International Music Competition. Unfortunately, this performance turned out somewhat less than finished: Fray’s pianism displayed fine athletic fervour but still seemed unsettled and unshaped at points, not fully finding the pristine sparkle and point that this work needs. The occasion of this evening was the Bruckner.


© Geoffrey Newman 2018