Dennis Russell Davies: 
The Essential Bruckner, the Symphonies 2, 3 & 7 by Anton Bruckner

Interviewtranscript (recorded October 26th, 2016), Dennis Russell Davies was interviewed by Verena Lafferentz

Dennis Russell Davies at the Basilika St. Florian recording the 7th Symphony of Anton Bruckner (Photo by Reinhard Winkler)
Dennis Russell Davies at the Basilika St. Florian recording the 7th Symphony of Anton Bruckner (Photo by Reinhard Winkler)

The Essential Bruckner Project is a preview, a “heads up”, announcing the completion in the coming months of a performance and concert recording cycle of the complete Bruckner Symphonies ( including the “Nullte”) in all known versions. In 2010 a recording series was released on Sony of the 10 Bruckner Symphonies performed and recorded in the Brucknerhaus in Linz by the Bruckner Orchester Linz. Shortly after, we decided to take this performing exploration of Bruckner‘s symphonies as far possible, bringing the wonderful Basilika of St. Florian, our other “Bruckner Home” into the mix.

The three symphonies we are packaging together were chosen because of their special relationship to the music of Richard Wagner, and in the case of the second and third symphony, they are heard in their rarely performed first versions. The slow movement of the seventh was interpreted by Bruckner‘s admirers as being a kind of funeral march, reflecting on Wagner‘s death. Bruckner admired – revered is a better word – Wagner and his music, was in awe of him, and in a sense represents the concert music that Richard Wagner never really had the interest or the time to compose. He hoped very much that Wagner would accept the dedication of either the Second Symphony or the Third, but it seems Bruckner was barely on Wagner‘s radar.

The first versions of both the Second and Third Symphonies are really interesting-wonderful, in my opinion the better versions, if at the same time somewhat impractical.  The Third comes in at a good 90 minutes, a stretch for the casual listener, and 20 minutes longer at least than Bruckner‘s “final version”. The acoustics and atmosphere at St. Florian afford the ideal setting for the public to appreciate these lengthy and challenging works.

Bruckner as a man and as a composer was insecure to the extreme. He had many well-meaning friends and colleagues who were always ready to help him “improve” his pieces – they believed in his music and were struggling with the fact that his music was not always understood or accepted by the public and professional musicians alike. And Bruckner was ready to change, often taking whole passagess out, tightening things up, not always – in my opinion – to the advantage of the pieces. 

The Fourth Symphony is a perfect example of what I mean. A luke-warm reception convinced Bruckner that the piece needed to be revised and shortened. For me, the wonder and magic of the second movement is truncated, but at the same time one of his fixes was to throw out the Scherzo and compose a new one. And the new one is glorious, far superior to the original.

I have literally learned by doing: by rehearsing and performing each symphony in all of its versions, I have been convinced of the beauty and validity of each and every one. I told my musicians that if Bruckner had had the Bruckner Orchester Linz at each premier, we might well have still only the first version.

Our original Bruckner Project, completed in 2010, took place in the Brucknerhaus, the wonderful concert hall in Linz. However, since 2001 I have been conducting the orchestra regularly at the Basilika at St. Florian, where Bruckner regularly played the organ, where he lived in his later life, and where he is buried. This place is very important to the orchestra and to me personally. The years we have been performing there together have taught me how to conduct this music – how to approach it and to understand it. The pauses, the space in the music, the fermatas, and of course the tempos all reflect the influence and affect this magnificent structure had on Bruckner a organist and composer. The orchestra and I have also learned to take this approach to his music with us when we work in a “normal” concert hall. 

The special character and tone that the Bruckner Orchestra brings to performing this music, rooted in the central European tradition is especially striking when you hear it in a place like St. Florian. The musicians have a real understanding of how to listen to each other and how to let the acoustics work for the music.