“If you’re familiar with a work, it’s like looking at a great piece of art,” Simone Young tells me, and I can’t help but wonder which masterpiece I would compare to a Bruckner symphony or Wagner opera. A Monet? A Rothko with its infinity of despair and joy? As I was once a regular at the Wiener Staatsoper and Musikverein, I’ve seen her conduct both grandees of the Romantic era that we both cherish so much, but what strikes me as unusual is that Young actually came to Bruckner via Wagner. “My early musical experiences were in the opera house. Once I started working in European houses, I became more conscious of the repertoire which is far more broad and mixed from what I’m used to from Australia. Then I fell in love with Bruckner’s Sixth. That expanded to a curiosity for all the symphonies which then became a passion.”

Simone Young © Reto Klar
Simone Young
© Reto Klar

Anton Bruckner and Richard Wagner could not have had two more distinct personalities: Bruckner, the devoted, unpolitical and religious organist; Wagner, the alpha male and revolutionist. “Bruckner lived the drama and the emotional power that he was unable to find in his lifetime through his symphonies. Whereas Wagner was intent on experiencing everything he could. He was so supremely self confident of his own genius and Bruckner was anything but,” Young points out. “Bruckner rewrote so much of his music, simply because the musicians said they didn’t want to play it or they couldn’t play it in a certain way. Wagner probably would have said ‘I don’t write it for you!’” Another obvious difference is the choice of genre, and yet, there is one evident similarity that links these two composers together: “The grand scale of things! Wagnerian acts are of an extended size and construction and Bruckner’s symphonic movements almost explode, if you like. I think of the particular use of the brass, the massive scoring and the strong vertical harmonic structure of the works. One can draw too many comparisons between the two, but I think it’s wrong not to be aware of Bruckner’s fascination and almost admiration of Wagner.”

Bruckner was first introduced to Wagner’s music by his teacher Otto Kitzler in 1863 and it was only then that he decided to compose on a larger scale. Formerly fascinated by the formalism of Italian and German polyphony, he now absorbed Wagner’s ideas and dedicated his Third Symphony to the German eccentric. “You can’t miss the Wagnerian influence on Bruckner – it’s constantly there. And I don’t think he would have wanted us to miss it. I spent some time with the autograph manuscripts of the Fifth Symphony in the National Library in Vienna. Bruckner completely rewrote the brass parts, rescored them, added the tuba after he had heard the Ring cycle. The impact was very direct and obviously expanded what he could imagine in his musical palace as a composer. I love to bring out the exploded octave in the basses in the Ninth Symphony, which for me references the singular passages in the prelude to Tristan and I always explain that to the musicians. It is very telling that this is what he was trying to do in his final work.”

As someone whose home is very much the opera house, Young tends to exaggerate the Wagnerian connections and references rather than anything else – one reason why she chose to record the original versions of all Bruckner's symphonies with the Hamburg Philharmonic in 2014-15. “It became an intellectual exercise in which version to perform and it was quite a deliberate choice on my part and I’m happy I made it. The original versions are very telling in their edginess. They are not as smooth and perhaps as perfect as the later versions, but they tell me more about what the composer originally wanted to do.”

To better understand both composers and their style one must look at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Bruckner pursued the symphonic form to further Beethoven’s legacy. “I find a very theatrical construction in his symphonies,” Young agrees. “Particularly in the early versions when he reworks the material of the fourth movements in a very Beethovenian way. Wagner is all about innovation and development, the expansion of chromaticism. His music is dictated by his own construction of the text, by the vocal lines.”

Young acknowledges that Bruckner got himself a bad name and many people dismiss him as being dull, boring and too ponderous, too religious. Something she tries to change with her programming. “Some people find the repeated material difficult. But if you approach the long span as a theatrical structure, the length and size of these expanses don’t become a problem any more, they become simply part of the whole landscape.” Another way is to lead the audience through the influence of the composer. “The more connection you can give, the better it is for everyone,” Young shares. “It’s not essential to cross reference the works, but I find it interesting and satisfying as a performer. I often programme the Wesendonck Lieder ahead of a Bruckner symphony or the Vorspiel und Liebestod before Bruckner Nine. It also goes particularly well with a Mozart Piano Concerto. Everything starts with him!”

Fortunately, performers now have excellent critical editions available to them. “You start with the score,” Young explains. “And you have to be aware of the sound world that Bruckner lived in for so much of his life: the organ in St Florian. I think everybody who wants to conduct Bruckner needs to go and spend some time sitting, listening to the organ play. It’s the specific kind of sound and you hear that so much in his wind and brass parts, particularly in his early symphonies.”

I suggest that Wagner’s often infinite development of melody can be quite demanding for the audience as well. It takes a good three hours before the melody in Parsifal is fully displayed in the Karfreitagszauber. “Parsifal is almost a kind of Zen Yoga”, Young laughs. “One has to get into a particular mindset to perform or listen to Parsifal. But let’s take something just as seminal, just as important, but on a different scope. For me, everything comes back to Tristan. The melodic invention is something that still influences composers today.” Equally inventive are the productions of his operas. “They have so much scope for interpretation and development. It’s fascinating what different directors can read into a Wagnerian opera. Sometimes it’s quite frustrating what they are trying to read into it. One of the joys of performing Wagner with great singers is that you can find something new in the works every time you perform them. They are never tired, they are never old, they always feel fresh. And that’s not the case with a great many other works for stage.”

And the conducting? How exhausting, both physically and emotionally, is it? “It’s a big commitment and yes, it takes time, but once undertaken it’s also immensely rewarding. It comes back to the question of scale, the one strong similarity between the two composers. You spend a lifetime in a Bruckner symphony. You go with him through an emotional experience and if you don’t commit to that as a performer, you’re missing out on something and your audience probably is too.”