It is probably true that the Second Symphony is unlikely to achieve
the fame and popularity of the later symphonies; then again,
are these appropriate words
to use in relation to Bruckner? Having said that, it is a substantial work lasting
more than an hour with a magnificent sweep of concentration, a characteristic
that is well delivered in this performance. What it lacks however is the epic
scale that Bruckner created as he grew older and more experienced in symphonies
such as the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth. It is true that he did return to the score
later on and made revisions - van Zweden has opted for the 1877 version - but
in truth these did not alter the symphony substantially.
This performance was recorded in the studios of Netherlands Radio at Hilversum,
and the sonic results are magnificent. An appropriately expansive acoustic allows
the music to be heard in its full range of sonorities, with a rich orchestral
resonance that is pleasing in its own right. A particular characteristic of this
symphony, experienced in the first movement especially, is the use of pauses,
out of which the music resumes after having subsided to silence. Van Zweden has
a sensitive understanding of the challenges this poses, and his pacing and phrasing
of the music is ever sensitive to its special qualities.
No sooner has the performance begun than one feels the choice of tempo to be
just right in the first movement. For there is some magnificent playing from
the cellos when they bring in their gloriously lyrical but strong principal theme.
This music is extraordinary, a marvellous reconciliation of poetry with activity,
and the performance is always effective and sensitively judged. The catalogue
offers some distinguished competition, headed by Daniel Barenboim with the Berlin
Philharmonic (Elatus 2564 60437-2), a live performance also of the 1877 Nowak
edition, in excellent sound. Georg Tintner with the National Orchestra of Ireland
(Naxos 8.554006) opts for the original 1872 score with the inner movements reversed,
that is, with the scherzo placed second in the sequence of four movements. This
version too is well played in a pleasing acoustic, though without quite the impact
of the Dutch performance.
The slow movement has a special eloquence, with some wonderful writing for the
strings, while the scherzo, as we might expect, is the most direct and powerfully
rhythmic part of the work. Here the sheer virtuosity of the orchestra comes to
the fore, with the trumpets and timpani on fine form. By contrast the central
trio is an idyll of great beauty.
The finale is more complex, and probably the most difficult of the four movements
to bring off. At nearly twenty minutes it matches the respective lengths of the
first and second movements, though not so consistently their level of inspiration.
Again the playing of the orchestra serves Bruckner well, and the conductor’s
grasp of style and structure carries the music through to a purposeful conclusion.
Bruckner’s Second is a fine symphony that will become finer still on each
hearing, and such a response is a tribute to these performers as it is to the
recording as well.