We’re riding a tide of ‘The Incredibly Shrinking Romantics’ at the moment, with Gilbert Kaplan’s chamber orchestra version of Mahler’s Second Symphony
on Avie, while the BIS label’s ‘Opening Doors’ series with Thomas Dausgaard has also entered almost comparable territory with Bruckner’s Second Symphony
played by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. If you are looking for a full-fat symphonic orchestra recording of this work then that from Marcus Bosch on the Coviello label is something rather special (see review
), but if you have an interest in alternative versions of established repertoire then this 20 musician-strong arrangement of Bruckner’s Second Symphony
is taking the Romantic orchestra about as far down the road as it can without exploring Hummel-esque distillations into string quartet and piano or the like.
As explained in the booklet, this arrangement has its origins in Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Society for Private Musical Performance’, which for about three years from 1918 presented works from a variety of composers in chamber music settings, including a ‘signature’ harmonium as a kind of contemporary continuo. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, initiator of this project, describes how this treatment “distilled the very essence of the musical language into [a] micro-oeuvre”, allowing the works “to resonate in challenging ways which ultimately celebrated their most durable characteristics.”
This is in fact a quite straightforward summary of what we hear in this recording. What you miss is the breadth and grandeur of a well recorded symphony orchestra – that spread of massed strings and full winds and brass sonorities – but that’s about it. The scale of Bruckner’s symphonic vision and the weight of his musical ideas are certainly preserved, and the performance is indeed persuasive. Anthony Payne has also contributed to the booklet notes, and his insightful comments provide numerous clues as to how you can approach this recording as a listener. Payne has covered the core effects of Bruckner’s orchestration with a string sextet, single flute and oboe, and the bulk of the larger wind sonorities covered by two clarinets and bassoons, three horns, one trumpet and trombone, tympani, piano and the ‘signature’ harmonium.
You can’t put this performance up against symphonic recordings and complain about under-powered this or that, although there are inevitably some passages in which the winds beat the strings into submission. You can however put your experience of the music in whichever context and decide how this version measures up in terms of your appreciation of Bruckner’s expressive world and symphonic narrative, with all of its characteristic quirkiness and unexpected shafts of inspired brilliance. The ensemble for this recording is acclaimed by Anthony Payne as “one of the finest chamber groups I’ve heard in the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble”, and with names like BBC Young Musician finalists Emma Halnan (flute) and Anna Douglass (horn) just to drop a couple of names, this is musicianship at the cutting edge of a younger generation of artists we can expect to hear more from in the near future. The recording is also very fine indeed, the acoustic of St George’s in Bristol perfect for this kind of chamber-music-with-substance setting, with detail and resonance in an ideal balance. The stereo mix is excellent, the SACD layer adding extra depth in both 5.1 and 2- channel sound, effects which help the definition of the instruments and add an involving spread of ambience without beating us over the head with special effects.
There are too many sublime moments to pick out individual sections, and I have no arguments with Trevor Pinnock’s conducting. His may be a name associated with early music, but in some senses this peeling back of a work to its essence is comparable to research revealing what we hope is the truth about any score, be it ancient or modern. My standard reference for Bruckner’s symphonies is the cycle recorded for Philips by Bernard Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Haitink’s pace and timings are comparable with Pinnock’s, only the Scherzo
gathering greater momentum with the more compact ensemble and shaving a couple of minutes from Haitink’s timing. Not a huge amount of detail is gone into in terms of which version of the score was used, but Pinnock has “chosen to adopt some of the composer’s later adjustments”, and would appear to have picked the best material for a chamber music adaptation.
There are inevitably some moments which are weaker than others. The development which grows from about 9:30 to 10.30 in the second movement becomes a bit laboured, the difficult string figurations swarming around the slowly growing wind chords like angry insects. These more awkward fragments are however very few, and the general impressions are those of genuine enjoyment and indeed excitement.
The ‘filler’ for this CD is Alban Berg’s arrangement of Johann Strauss II’s Wein, Weib und Gesang
, about which we are told nothing in the booklet notes, though Berg’s music was apparently a frequent inclusion in Schoenberg’s Society programmes. Funnily enough, this version opens with the most ‘modern’ sounds on the disc, the atmospheric piano notes and simple melodic shapes suggesting the music might leap into something pastoral by Aaron Copland rather than the waltz which subsequently takes shape. Strauss’s elegant tunes suit this light ‘salon orchestra’ treatment perfectly, and while you needn’t expect any sonic revelations this arrangement does give the harmonium an occasional chance to take the foreground. The results are richly colourful and highly entertaining, and if you see anyone on your station platform swaying in a gentle balancé
then there is a distinct possibility they are listening to this eminently danceable performance.
I will a point of seeking out other volumes in this series, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony
already having appeared. When arranging music I always ask myself what the positive benefits of such a project will be when weighed against the composer’s original intentions. Clearly there are advantages to having huge scores available for performance by more compact ensembles, but with such music easily available on recordings is there any real necessity for this kind of thing? I would be the last to put recordings up against live performance, but this is a recording we are reviewing after all. The full orchestral version is of course a default choice, but this brand new-old school arrangement can open your ears to details in the symphony you probably won’t have noticed before. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood mentions “a fresh and perhaps even more pervasive Schubertian dialect than Bruckner’s original canvas”, and I would be the last person to argue against this point of view. This recording has certainly enhanced my appreciation of a Bruckner symphony which wasn’t usually top of the list when it came to leafing through the box set for a Bruckner ‘blast’ but this has changed, and that’s good.
Masterwork Index: Bruckner