Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony in F minor (Studiensinfonie) (1863) [41:59]
Hamburg Philharmonic/Simone Young
rec. Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, February 2013

Bruckner wrote the F minor Symphony at the end of his studies with Otto Kitzler in Linz, as a sort of proof of mastery. Considering it a mere student exercise, he never assigned it a number, leaving the rest of us with the mild problem of exactly what to call it. Leopold Nowak, in preparing his scholarly edition, called it the Studiensynfonie or "Study Symphony"; OEHMS uses this, though the composer didn't. The first stereo recording, under Elyakum Shapirra, simply called it "Symphony in F minor," as I have done. A Chant du Monde issue pairing Bruckner's rejected symphonies called the D minor Symphony ‘Le Zéro,’ following convention, then dubbed this earlier score "Double Zéro"!

In some ways, the symphony is atypical of the composer. It begins with neither an ostinato nor a tremolo, simply plunging immediately into the first theme. There's only one conspicuous "Bruckner pause," in the first-movement recapitulation: the first group climaxes on an unstable, unresolved chord, then, after a silence, the second group picks up as if nothing untoward had happened. In both outer movements, the repeated exposition -- yes, the finale includes an exposition repeat -- flows seamlessly into the development, and the final cadence of each is reinforced by two further punctuating chords, a gesture the composer would later eschew. On the other hand, the rolling, volatile Scherzo is immediately recognizable as Bruckner -- it couldn't be anyone else -- and there are numerous examples of the composer's deployment of instruments in blocks of sound, as if to simulate the changing of organ stops. Ultimately, the mature Bruckner is suggested less by any stylistic particulars than by a general austerity of spirit, relieved by the occasional lyric episode.

Elsewhere on this site, I complained about Simone Young's brusque, even offhand treatment of Bruckner's first canonical symphony. Here, her work is altogether better, although the opening, where she pushes the theme faster than it really wants, or needs, to go, betrays a lingering distrust of the material. The second theme, subtly propelled by syncopations, relaxes and sings sweetly, and the oboe solo relaxes further; when the repeat arrives, the music has to scurry back to the original tempo! Young does, however, display a far better feeling for Bruckner's sonorities than before, projecting the tuttis with weighted tone, playing off legato elements against detached ones within the textures.

The Andante molto goes with a recognizable Brucknerian gravitas, though, at the start, the second violins' downbeat inevitably, and incorrectly, registers as the first note of the theme. Woodwind soli are attractive and sensitive: note the oboe's voicing of the yearning second theme; the suave clarinet runs a bit later and the bassoon's supple, bittersweet embellishments beginning at 8.41. The Scherzo, trim and compact, is set off by a spacious Trio; Young's ritard at the end of the movement isn't really in the style, but it doesn't hurt anything. The Finale is hearty and forthright, with ominous tuttis and a shapely second theme; everything is in place, though not necessarily ideally balanced, with a few passages of idle note-spinning along the way. The final coda, in the major, is headlong and affirmative.

The Hamburg Philharmonic plays well, though wind chorales marked pianissimo sound well above that. The depth and clarity of the sound are winning, but, at a playback level that lets you savour the timbres, the brasses, and even the high strings, turn edgy and aggressive in tutti.

Shapirra, a onetime Bernstein assistant, didn't bring any particular personality to the table in his premiere recording, but he nails the Mendelssohn-on-steroids aspect of the score better than anyone else; it's worth hunting down if you "do" vinyl. (I originally wrote here "Don't hold your breath waiting for a download", but as you will see from the footnote, it does exist).  Young's will serve as a digital version, despite the short measure - Shapirra's LP also found room for the composer's Overture in G minor.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: John Quinn

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