Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 2 (1871-72; 1877 version; Nowak edition)
Northern Sinfonia/Mario Venzago
rec. 22-25 November 2011, The Sage, Gateshead
CPO 777 735-2 [56:30] 

It is probably true that the Second Symphony is unlikely to achieve the fame and popularity - if that is an appropriate word to use in relation to Bruckner - of the later symphonies. Having said that, it is a substantial work lasting more than an hour. It has a magnificent sweep of concentration, a characteristic that is well delivered in this performance. What is lacking is that sense of epic scale that Bruckner created as he grew older and more experienced and which can be heard assertively in symphonies such as the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth. He did however return to the score of the Second later on and made revisions; Venzago has opted for the 1877 version. 

Bruckner composed his Symphony No. 2 between October 1871 and September 1872. He made various revisions before the first performance, given on 26 October 1873, when he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic. Then he made other changes for a performance in 1876, and yet more in 1877 and 1892. William Carragan’s 2005 critical edition for the Bruckner Society attempts to come as close as possible to the original of 1872. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.
Mario Venzago has recorded several Bruckner symphonies in this cycle for CPO, the other orchestras thus far being the Tapiola Sinfonietta and the Basle Symphony. His relationship with the Northern Sinfonia as principal conductor led to this recording. It was made recently at The Sage, Gateshead. Employing what is essentially a chamber orchestra in Bruckner may lead to a few raised eyebrows. That said, Thomas Dausgaard has successfully conducted the Danish Chamber Orchestra in this symphony (BIS-SACD-1829). As we can now hear, the fluency of Bruckner’s invention is well represented by a more lyrical approach which seems to be released by chamber forces.
Perhaps the issue is that we tend too readily to consider the early Bruckner symphonies from the wrong direction, from the perspective of the great masterpieces from later in his life, rather than from the inheritance of Austro-German symphonies from the previous generation, for example Mendelssohn and Schumann. Venzago’s interpretation certainly puts these issues on the agenda, and the music is none the worse for it. That said, it is a little surprising that he did not opt for the first version of the score which has been so lovingly recreated by William Carragan. To hear that try Georg Tintner’s Naxos recording with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland (8.554006) or as part of a Naxos boxed set (review review).
Venzago allows vibrato only sparingly and this gives the music a special urgency and a natural intimacy when the dynamic is restrained. In what appears to be same edition of the score his 56 minutes knocks a full seven minutes off the timing achieved by Otmar Suitner in the latter’s terrific live performance with the NHK Orchestra in Tokyo (King International KKC 2009-10). Venzago’s approach is equally valid, and once either performance begins the listener is drawn in and the music sounds as though it could not possibly be otherwise.
Anyone acquiring this well engineered new recording of the symphony will likely find its lighter style hugely satisfying, and it certainly does justice to Bruckner’s vision.  

Terry Barfoot