Of all Bruckner's symphonies, the Third is the most problematic. First, there are three different versions of the score, all with their own validity - not to mention an extra one of the slow movement, and the various performing editions more or less well-meaning musicologists have concocted over the last century. And then there is the challenge of welding what is the most unwieldy of Bruckner's structures into a convincing, organic unity.
Bernard Haitink typically takes the pragmatic option: with the Dresden Staatskapelle on Sunday he conducted the 1877 score - the second of the three Bruckner produced - and brought to it the integrity and coherence that has been the hallmark of his Bruckner conducting for more than 30 years. Having at his disposal an orchestra with the tonal blend and awareness of tradition of the Staatskapelle was a huge bonus, of course. An orchestra that can trace its pedigree back 450 years, and list Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner and Richard Strauss among its former conductors, must inform its performance with a special historical perspective.
Certainly the Dresden sound is distinctive; there's no suggestion it has yet succumbed to the internationalisation of playing that makes it increasingly difficult to tell one orchestra from another. The reediness of the wind, the smoky, translucent strings, and the wonderfully unassertive brass are the constituents of a quickly identifiable ensemble.
The concert began with Mozart's Prague Symphony, No. 38, with everything studiously moulded by Haitink, but rather too massive and dogged. But if their approach to Mozart seems rather antiquated, it is perfect for the 19th-century symphonic repertoire, and Bruckner in particular. So, as Haitink steered his way with assurance through the excursions and occasional non sequiturs of the first movement, invested the Andante with a hymn-like radiance, and found a real sense of purpose in the diverse components of the finale, the sound world seemed absolutely right.
There are passages in three of the four movements that are pure texture - repeated-note figures that blur into a continuum. Here, so delicately played, they provided an extra element to bind the whole massive structure together. If the Third is never going to be rid of all its awkwardness, this account at least made much more sense of it than most.