Spring Symphonies: 44/60 - Bruckner: Symphony No 2

After a week or exploration and irritation, I can now return to a symphony that is one of my favourites,  It is powerful, under appreciated and only a tiny bit problematic and is the Second official symphony of Anton Bruckner compose din 1872 .  Second, that is, unless we count the Study Symphony No 0, and the earlier symphony No 00. Second that is unless we make some subdivision of the number of different editions in play.  All tolled, it is available in 8 different editions in recordings (as catalogue by the excellent John Berky found here http://www.abruckner.com/discography/symphonyno2incmino/ ) and two transcriptions for other forces - so there are 10 different versions of this symphony out there.  So it’s all a bit problematic until you settle on one version of the score or do as Karajan did , sort of invent his own score. 

There’s a good summary of a complex situation on Wiki here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._2_(Bruckner)

But for my purposes I'm talking about Symphony No 2 WAB 102, in C Minor (probably best approached from the Nowak edition of the 1877 score for newbies :-)

It’s hard to tell why the first three symphonies don’t get more air time and concert time.  Most of them have had advocacy though - Muti and Abbado in the First symphony, Ozawa and Giulini in the Second and, Szell and Knappertsbusch in the Third.  These are fine symphonies for the concert hall if conductors just commit to them.   Texturally there’s generally a case to be made for any of the editions of the score except for very early and heavily altered versions floating around before the work of Leopold Nowak just after the war or some of the very early versions which Bruckner would surely have edited down further. 

The Second is a mighty work and it takes off with confidence and pace.  The tremolo opening suddenly issues forth fragments which combine with a kind of upward facing complexion and a forward thrusting movement.  This is anything but a static symphony.  The trumpet joins the robbing pulse a little later on. 

Bruckner Wagner might have got confused by this score and the score for the Third which Bruckner had brought to seek the Master’s seal of approval.  Wagner wrote back having glanced at the two scores following his meeting with the composer saying that he liked the one that started with the trumpets - that could be either so Bruckner took the reference to mean No 3.  And so a perfectly good symphony is left hanging cos Wagner couldn’t get his facts right. Poor Bruckner!

Once in it’s stride this movement in all it’s forms has a great swagger and drive in first material and swooning élan in its contracting passage the low strings pick a delicate tread and weave a gentle and ardent waltz.  There’s plenty of interest in the movement much of it very stylish - the lead up to the return of the trumpet has a reciprocating power too.  We might associate this with some of the Minimalists of our time - at the time I suspect it was seen as dubious. 

The trend in recordings over the years has been to underplay Bruckner’s woodwind passage work - some Bruckner disciples over played date woodwind at the expense of the brass in earlier recordings, others left the woodwind to shine where they could in thick recordings heavy on brass and strings.  It seems to me that more recent recordings managed to reveal both and this has been a fantastic boon for those of us who knew the symphonies in our heads as a combination of strings, brass and woodwind in parity. Barenboim’s latest recording on Peral with the Staatskapelle Berlin seems to me almost ideal in this respect.

There’s some dramatic setting up of the coda - gentle music at face value but full of portent in context.  The coda can be taken at quite a lick and often is  but is forced to a halt before more a teasing section with great delicacy, then it slides it a frenzy.

The Andante which has to be solemn but with a sense of movement.  Many conductors find a sweet medium and the effect can be transcendant.  It’s much more effective than the Adagio in Symphony No 1.  It has a vast canvass if the tempo is broad enough to allow the vast chords to sound - here i think Barenboim struggles with his own impatience.  Despite a poor recording Karajan pulls great beauty out of the bag in his recording from 1981: this was the early days of digital and the violins are distinctly glassy.  There are differences between the additions here too.  But the coda of the movement is a long, superbly orchestrated vanishing act - it is spellbinding, breathtaking and some of the most comforting music I know.

The shock comes if there’s no break from that sublime coda into the scherzo which appears lumpen at first but it’s intricacies - rather abstract are woven into something bigger than first appears.  Some are a little too free with it and others play it straight.  The Furtwangler/Jochum school of Bruckner conducting with it’s tempo plasticity, doesn’t work for me here, because the material can sound arch - that is perhaps useful in the dance but not for the tight construction Bruckner has paced out for us.  The Trio is light, genteel and about as sentimental as they get but slowing it down doesn’t help much.  For me the real breakthrough in this symphony comes after the repeat of the scherzo section.  Bruckner adds - as he did in Symphony No 1 - a coda.  In this case it is our first glimpse of the true dramatic potential of Bruckner’s writing - listen to it carefully it holds great power.  The use of timpani is crucial (and perhaps a foreshadowing of Bruckner’s innovative use of the instrument in later symphonies especially no 6).  But all the elements must be in place - even by Barenboim in his latest live recording misses the woodwind in the rush to the final chord.  It must be heard - as usual Stan Skrowaczewski gets it spot on.

The finale is also subject to variation depending on edition - but starts at a tremendous pace and works to a climax of brilliance, the second subject looks back to the soppy Trio and may be the root of weakness of this movement.  Bruckner didn’t really get finales right until the Fifth symphony and even then some would argue that he never gets to a place of full dramatic realisation. They are either too short or too long, underworked or overworked, cumulative or terminal.  This finale explores it’s material a little too much and finds a way through eventually but - it’s all heat and no light and at the end Bruckner sows it up with some pretty crude devices.  Those of us who know the end will bear the hard work here.  The coda itself pulls the movement up out of it’s malaise.  The trumpets return and ring out, timpani fuel a sense of grand culmination and the symphony ends in a blaze of glory.  

Much else was to happen in Bruckner’s appreciation of the symphony until he hit two near perfect but very different models of expression in the Fifth and Sixth.  I hear the original versions of these symphonies and feel that he did need a helping hand shaping them.  This seems like kryptonite to some people who demand we must have only what Bruckner wrote.  I say that’s nonsense: Ezra Pound’s role shaping Elliot’s Wasteland was essential, Shakespeare got feedback from his company of players, Munch produced serval versions of The Scream.  In coming to your own conclusion on this particular aspect Bruckner’s work I’d say ignore those who say there’s a best version or a right version.  Listen to many and find one that suits.  But enjoy the great energy and radiant tranquility in this early work.

Here's Sir Georg Solti in 1991 with the Stuttgart RSO in a big venue!  It's interesting to watch because I never really thought Bruckner was a natural composer for Solti's art - all this long passages of repetition must have driven him mad - but the early symphonies seem to fit a little better.  You get some feel - thanks to pretty good tV direction - of how Bruckner uses instrumental groups and how Solti gets some of the inner detail out.  That balance problem becomes evident.


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