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. Lacking is any sense
of the sort of epic scale that Bruckner created as he grew older
and more experienced, in symphonies such as the Seventh, Eighth
and Ninth. He did return to the score of the Second later on
and made revisions - Suitner (1922-2010) has opted for the 1877
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
Orchestra. 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.
This performance was recorded live in Tokyo for Japanese Radio
(NHK), and the sonic results are impressive. 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
into silence. Suitner has a sensitive understanding of the challenges
this poses, and his pacing and phrasing is ever aware of the
music’s special qualities.
No sooner has the performance begun than one feels the choice
of tempo to be just right in the first movement. There is some
magnificent playing from the NHK orchestra, such as when the
cellos introduce their gloriously lyrical but strong principal
theme. This music is extraordinary, a marvellous reconciliation
of poetry with activity. The performance is always effective
and sensitively judged.
The catalogue offers some distinguished competition, for example
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. More recently
there is Jaap van Zweden with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
(Exton SACD EXCL-00014) in the 1877 version, recorded in 2007
in excellent sound. This version too is well played in a pleasing
acoustic, though without quite the impact of the Tokyo concert.
These are just a few examples, for Bruckner is well served in
terms of recordings. In this company Suitner and his NHK orchestra
more than hold their own, and their live performance generates
a special intensity.
The slow movement, placed second in 1877 but third in 1872,
has some wonderful writing for the strings, while the scherzo
is the most direct and powerfully rhythmic of the four. Here
the virtuosity of the orchestra comes to the fore, with the
trumpets and in particular the timpani on top form. By contrast
the central trio is eloquence itself.
The finale is a more complex structure, and by that token is
probably the most difficult of the four movements to bring off.
At around twenty minutes it matches the respective lengths of
the first and second movements. 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.
At the end the applause breaks in, not quite but almost interrupting
the final chord. It is hard not to join in, but a few more moments
of reflection by those in Toyo in 1980 would have been appreciated.
Suitner's live performance from Tokyo of the Fourth Symphony
dates from 1971, nearly a decade earlier. The recorded sound
is good but not quite as good as in 1980. The edition used is
perhaps the most common one: 1880 Nowak. This performance too
generates the special frisson of the live occasion, and it is
offered here without patching, so that the orchestral blemishes
and audience contributions - and there are several - are preserved
The published timings instantly reveal that at barely an hour
Suitner opts for a dramatic approach, and he succeeds in getting
it. He does not have Karajan's sonorous breadth (DG 477 5006),
for instance, though these things are not entirely lacking since
they are in the score. As an example, Suitner builds a magnificent
climax in the chorale at the centre of the first movement, while
the string music that follows is wonderfully tender.
The Andante sets out with a flowing theme, the balancing
of the orchestral sections contributing to its pacing and characterisation,
though the woodwinds are somewhat spotlit. The eloquence of
the string playing provides ample compensation.
The replacement scherzo Bruckner created for his revised Fourth
Symphony is one of his most celebrated achievements, a veritable
tour de force. The live occasion brings a real sense
of excitement, and if the experience brings both us as listeners
and the orchestral musicians to the edges of our seats so much
the better. True, not all the recorded balances and shadings
of dynamic are as they might be from a studio performance, but
The finale of the Fourth Symphony is a substantial movement,
some twenty minutes in duration; Suitner comes in at 19:27.
If I have a criticism of his approach it is that he can sometimes
be wanting in atmosphere, as at the very beginning of the movement,
However, once the first climax is reached the power is galvanic.
Likewise the quality of the string playing remains a notable
feature, responding to the phrasing of the line at a relatively
rapid tempo. This approach is consistent with that of the whole
work, from a conductor with a real sense of what he wants and
how to achieve it.
These performances are paired in a slimline box, though the
price isn't slimline at well over £20. Unless you are
fluent in Japanese, the booklet documentation is non-existent
save for an essay on the history of the NHK Orchestra. However,
these performances are well worth investigating and will bring
rich rewards, even though there are more sophisticated and perfect
studio recordings that may serve better as the only versions
in a collection.
Masterwork Index: Symphony
2 ~~ Symphony