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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1877 version, Ed. William Carragan) [61:30]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, 6 February 2019, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Alexander Radulescu (video director)
Formats: picture 1080i, 16:9; sound PCM stereo, DSD-HD, MA 5.0. Region code 0 (worldwide).
Reviewed in surround sound.
C MAJOR 730604 Blu-ray [63 mins]

Christian Thielemann’s Bruckner symphony series, filmed at live performances with the Staatskapelle Dresden, continues with Symphony Number 2. Thielemann has been Principal Conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since 2012, and theirs is a rare alliance among musicians who have devotedly served Bruckner’s music in recent years. This has been a peripatetic cycle from them, with earlier releases from live performances in Baden-Baden, Munich, and of course the Semperoper in Dresden. Here they are in Hamburg, at the still new Elbphilharmonie.

The performance is excellent throughout, consistent with others in the series. At first I feared there might be some balance issues, for when the first movement exposition reaches the entry of the trumpet with the so-called “Bruckner rhythm” on the note C, the instrument, on which the camera focusses, is a bit recessed in the sound picture, when the opposite is intended (the score marks it forte). Perhaps the unfamiliar hall when full sounded different from when it was empty at rehearsal. The eye helps the ear at this point however, and there is no similar problem elsewhere. The strings are superbly supple and expressive in the first group and the cellos sing nobly in their turn (they have many fine passages to relish in this work). Thielemann’s direction feels unerring throughout (he needs no score to consult). There is a momentary ritardando in the andante that sounds spontaneous enough, but mostly the conductor works within the tempos he sets, providing the cumulative impact Bruckner generates over long passages that take time to reach their destined climax. When those climaxes arrive they pack a punch without becoming overblown, helped by the fine tonal qualities of the brass.

The woodwinds enjoy their many lyrical opportunities too, especially in the slow movement. The first horn is a fine player, managing that cruelly high passage in the slow movement heroically. He then of course, this being the 1877 version, must listen to the clarinet play the mysterious calls of the final bars of the movement – originally given to the horn in 1872, but transferred to clarinet for which they are much easier. But the effect is to rob the moment of its woodland magic, so for once I would favour the conductor mixing versions here and reinstating the horn, especially when he has such a good player. The scherzo stamps along briskly, with especially perky woodwind interjections, and its trio yodels along cheerfully in the violas, then the violins, until the scherzo’s return and a very emphatic close. The finale is a fine example of Thielemann’s sense of Bruckner’s processes, and his feeling for pulse, even when the music becomes very slow. Thus he really takes his time over the long, slow quotation from the composer’s F minor mass that appears just before the recapitulation, holding the tension through that otherworldly meditative moment before, very gradually, the momentum is regained, and the final blaze is reached.

“Completing their critically acclaimed Bruckner cycle” says Unitel’s publicity of this issue. Numbers 1-9 are still usually presented as a cycle, but number 0 was written between, not before, numbers 1 and 2, and is far from negligible, despite Bruckner’s own “Die Nullte” dismissal. It may now be number nought, but its substance does not amount to naught. Tintner on Naxos and Simone Young on Oehms are excellent CD cycles that include both it and the (much less essential) “Study Symphony”. But if this is to be another 1-9 only “cycle” it can only be considered a very fine achievement. The nearest thing to a Blu-ray rival is also from Unitel, Barenboim’s splendid Berlin Staatskapelle account of numbers 4-9. His half-cycle is styled “The Mature Symphonies” which is slightly off the mark also – Bruckner was 48 years old when he finished this 1872 original version of his Second Symphony, and Robert Simpson in his famous book on the Bruckner Symphonies refers to it is as solving “problems of Bruckner’s earliest maturity”. Brucknerians would surely want the rewards of hearing and seeing a whole cycle, which is a cycle of ten, not nine, symphonies.

That said, there is no other filmed version as far as I know of this Second Symphony, and this performance certainly fills that gap with a very fine performance. The booklet has a short essay in which the author quotes familiar criticism of the Elbphilharmonie acoustic and the view of Die Welt’s reviewer that Thielemann and his players had mastered it and “delivered results that should…be a lesson to subsequent conductors and orchestras.”

Certainly there are no acoustical problems with the excellent blu-ray sound on this disc, and the hall’s reverberation sounds about right on those occasions when silence follows a loud passage. (Bruckner removed some of his characteristic silent bars from the 1872 version, which had been dubbed by a VPO player “the symphony of pauses”.) The filming shows good musical judgement in its editing, apart from a moment around the 42-minute mark (overall timing) when the trumpets and trombones dominate the sound picture but the horn section fill the visual one. The video and audio recording gear is unobtrusive, and there are a few shots of the impressive-looking hall itself, but the focus is very firmly on the musicians. Except that is in the booklet, which lists forty names associated with the production in some way, but only one musician (the conductor). I am sure Herr Thielemann, whose work is splendid here, would not deny that his magnificent Dresden players deserve some recognition too.

Roy Westbrook

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