Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 2 (1877 version; Nowak edition) [63:23]
Symphony No. 4 (1880 version, Nowak edition) [62:35]
NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo/Otmar Suitner
rec. live, 21 November 1980 (No. 2), 6 December 1971 (No. 4), Tokyo.
KING INTERNATIONAL KKC 2009-10 [63:23 + 62:35]
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 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 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 for posterity.
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 no matter.
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.
Otmar Suitner was an outstanding Bruckner conductor, as these two live performances from Tokyo testify.
Masterwork Index: Symphony 2 ~~ Symphony 4