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 Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No. 2 in C minor, First Concept Version, 1872 (ed. William Carragan, 2005)
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. ‘live’ 12-13 March 2006, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg. SACD
Experience Classicsonline

My colleague Gary Higginson recently reviewed a recording by these same artists of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, which I have not yet heard. That too was a live recording, made in the same venue and just about seven months after this present recording. Then, as now, Simone Young seems to have gone "back to basics", for in the case of the Third Symphony she performed Bruckner’s original 1873 score.

Here, she gives us the original version of the Second Symphony in the recently published critical edition by William Carragan. In the notes we are told that Miss Young "accelerated its long overdue publication after she made it known that she would be conducting it in 2004 in Berlin, 2005 in Vienna and, finally, in 2006 in Hamburg." Despite that spirited advocacy, hers is not the first recording of this edition. Georg Tintner recorded it as long ago as 1996 as part of his Naxos cycle (see review). I assume Tintner used the same edition (I haven’t seen a score) which Naxos bill as "Published Edition, 1872 version, ed. W. Carragan 1991." Interestingly, though there are some slight timing differences between each account of the various movements, both conductors take exactly the same length of time, 71:22, for the whole work.

Bruckner composed his Second Symphony between October 1871 and September 1872. However, subsequently he revised it several times, firstly in 1873, then again in 1876 and, finally, once again in 1877. Many conductors have performed the work in Robert Hass’s 1938 edition of the score, which is largely based on Bruckner’s 1877 revision, but which also incorporates some material from the 1872 original. All this – and much more – is set out in Michael Lewin’s very thorough booklet note, in the course of which he suggests that one should "view the 1873 and 1876 versions as transitional stages and not independent versions." In the light of that statement it’s interesting to note that Eugen Jochum’s 1967 recording (DG) is billed as using the 1875/6 score, as edited by Nowak. Two other recordings that I have use Nowak’s edition of the 1877 score. These are the recordings by Karajan (DG, 1982) and by Giulini (1974, EMI/Testament.)

The main changes that Bruckner made over the course of these revisions are threefold. The original version of the first movement contained no fewer than nine long pauses; in the revisions he eliminated all but one of these. In the second place he changed the order of the middle two movements so that in all versions except the original the scherzo is placed third, preceded by the Adagio. Finally, and most dramatically, he cut 104 bars from his first thoughts on the finale.

The effect of these changes, and particularly the excisions in the finale, can be seen by comparing the timings of some of the recordings – Simone Young’s and Tintner’s are virtually identical, as I’ve already commented. Note that in all recordings except those of the 1872 version, the scherzo comes third. Thus we have: Jochum 51:55 (17:57; 14:05; 6:37; 13:17); Karajan: 60:16 (18:16; 17:40; 6:13; 18:07); Giulini: 58:40 (19:51; 16:14; 7:10; 15:11); Young: 71:22: (20:40; 10:47; 19:32; 20:23). These bald figures show at a glance the tremendous effect made on the overall timing of the work by the cuts in the finale in particular.

I admired this present performance greatly. Much of the first movement is lyrical, sunny even, and Simone Young moves the music forward with a sure hand; it sounds "right". The climaxes (for example around 4:20) are built well and with a satisfying degree of excitement. The pauses, most of which were subsequently excised, are frequent but seem natural. Once or twice I felt the music meanders a bit (for example between 16:00 and 17:30) but the beautiful playing of the Hamburg orchestra compensates for any momentary longuers. The sudden eruption of the short, brass-dominated coda is stirring and emphatic.

The scherzo, heard here in its original second place in the symphony, has fiery material, which is delivered with bite – the trumpets are splendidly incisive here – but the more lyrical passages are nicely turned. The trio is graceful.

The Adagio seems daringly slow and I note that Miss Young’s overall timing (19:32) is quite a bit longer than Tintner’s traversal of the same text (18:00). In fact, comparisons with the conductors mentioned above are not out of court since Bruckner made few alterations in this movement. Both Karajan’s and Jochum’s accounts take quite a bit less time than Miss Young’s but Giulini’s nobly sung version runs for 19:51. Though Miss Young’s basic pulse is challengingly broad her players deliver. The string sound is beautifully rich, founded on a firm bass, and we hear more distinguished work from the woodwind principals and the first horn. It’s a long movement but Simone Young is a persuasive guide and shows an instinctive feel for Brucknerian style and for the idiom. I warmed very much to her patient approach to this movement – for example the sonorous crescendo between 7:00 and 7:35. Equally admirable is the dynamic control and range of her orchestra. A good example of this occurs in the glowing passage between 13:28 and 14:37, which is richly intoned by the orchestra. But note also that in the preceding bars the sound had been fined down almost to nothing. The serene final pages (from 16:56) are beautifully done, bringing to an end a deeply considered and very satisfying performance of this movement.

The finale is on an ambitious scale and begins by revisiting some material that we heard in the first movement. As previously mentioned, Bruckner subsequently cut about 100 bars from this movement. I wonder if perhaps second thoughts were better on this occasion because I have to confess that there were occasions during the performance of the finale when I found my attention wandering slightly. That’s emphatically not the fault of the performers; I suspect if anyone is to blame it’s Bruckner – or me! However, the music is played with great conviction and understanding. Miss Young handles the tempo changes and the sometimes tricky pauses skilfully; one never feels a jolt. The final pages are excitingly done.

Throughout this performance Simone Young displays impressive credentials as a Bruckner interpreter. She is well served by her orchestra. On the rival Tintner performance the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland also play very well though I fancy the Hamburg orchestra has just a slight edge both in terms of blend and in beauty and weight of tone. I wonder, however, if Georg Tintner deliberately cultivated a slightly more spare, lean sound? Also I think the respective recordings must be taken into account. The superb Oehms sound is richer and more full than the Naxos sound, fully acceptable though that is. Of course, it’s pertinent to say that a decade separates these recordings, during which time recording techniques have not stood still. Incidentally, though the Oehms disc is a hybrid SACD I listened to it as a conventional CD. The Young recording is taken from live performances but there is no discernable audience noise – and no applause at the end. The notes by Michael Lewin are comprehensive and interesting.

The Tintner recording remains a fine achievement and, of course, enjoys a significant price advantage over the newcomer. However, on balance and if price is not an issue, I’d be inclined to recommend this Simone Young version as the choice for those wanting Bruckner’s full and original text. However, the recordings of the revised versions that I have mentioned still have their place and should not be cast aside.

Simone Young’s Bruckner cycle has been launched auspiciously. If the standard of this disc is maintained I think her cycle will be a notable one and I look forward keenly to further instalments.

John Quinn



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