BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (1877; ed. Carragan, 2007); Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (1890; ed. Nowak); WAGNER: Prelude to Act I, Die Meistersinger – Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/ Andris Nelsons – DGG 483 9834 (2 CDs) 68:47; 81:59 (12/17/20) [Distr. by Universal] *****:
Recorded September and December 2019, these readings of music by Wagner and his ardent admirer Anton Bruckner demonstrate a remarkable sonic image from Nelsons and his Gewandhaus Orchestra, a sheen that easily rivals what Herbert von Karajan had accomplished in Berlin. The suave string line and subsequent, contrapuntal internal voicings in Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger set the tone for a remarkable level of instrumental virtuosity. Beyond the sheer acoustical image – courtesy of Everett Porter – the dramatic content of the Wagner compares favorably with the mighty legacy we have from such notables as Karajan, Klemperer, Knappertsbusch, and Toscanini.
The first of the two C Minor symphonies here presented, the 1872 Symphony No. 2, institutes what become standard features of Bruckner’s style: the tremolando string opening that leads to a chromatic melody line; the outer movements’ use of three thematic groups that evolve into formed periods of development and cessation – extended pauses; the allusion to the hymn as a source of melodic inspiration and subject for variation; free use of polyphony; the alternation of crescendo and decrescendo lines of dynamic tension; and the often meandering sense of development that follows Schubert rather than Beethoven and what led Brahms, in a moment of impatient criticism, to call Bruckner’s symphonies “boa constrictors.” Despite the structural challenges and the thickness of Bruckner’s syntax, he claimed for this work to have striven for “utmost clarity” of expression.
Nelsons gives ample spaciousness to Bruckner’s vision, and the music flows in discernible arcs of light and shadow, a Manichean vision rife with intimations of immortality. The more lyrical episodes highlight the winds and horns, often in the bucolic manner of an Austrian laendler. As the final pages of the opening Moderato proceed, they erupt in mountains of sound that might signify the Gates of Heaven or some Alpine vista that the painting The Wanderer Above the Sea of Mist depicts. The sheer contrast in sonic mass announces itself immediately in the Andante, whose delicate pizzicatos begs comparison with viewing our glorious planet from varying vantage points from the moon.
The Scherzo has an athleticism that takes one’s breath away, with resonant strings and horns in contrast from delicate figures in the woodwinds. The Gewandhaus brass project in full throttle, yet the Trio section and its melodic phrases generate a charm of landscape. A two-measure pause delays the pungent da capo of the Scherzo theme, now sounding more like Goldmark in his Rustic Wedding. The coda announces the tympani, and the music rushes headlong into agitated space. That same energy infiltrates the Finale: Mehr schnell, an elongated sonata-rondo form pregnant with triplet figures. Once more, interruptive silences generate a feeling of pediodicity in the momentum of this sprawling vista, whose transparency of string and wind textures completely beguiles us. The coda blazes with steely affirmation. That Nelsons has held the constantly shifting textures and masses of sound together attests to a sterling orchestral discipline. Nelsons employs the Nowak edition in the face of alternative editions that exist, which still cause arguments among pedants as to “authenticity.”
Like Brahms, Bruckner felt the weight of Beethoven’s influence in this music, even to the point of Bruckner’s imitating in the opening motif the bass figures of the Ninth Symphony, here in the C Minor “fate” sensibility of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. What strikes us with potent immediacy in the opening Allegro moderato lies in the orchestra’s approximation of organ registration, the attempt to manipulate tones that the organ’s diapasons and positiv provide. Besides the graduated, gargantuan crescendos and decrescendos often dissipate into mesmeric tropes of intimate mystery. The period stops and starts tend to accumulate their own momentum, and the cumulative impact all but punishes us. The coda’s trumpets inflict what Bruckner termed the “Annunciation of Death” and “Submission.”
The ensuing Scherzo generates its own terrors, employing a relentless motif based on five notes: C -E-flat- F-G-G whose momentum and whirling frenzy Wilhelm Furtwaengler seems to have relished in his performances. Nelsons, too, manages towering, rising scales and thunderous cadences in what might be termed a “hail of demonic mystery.” The aerial Trio section, with its three harps, proffers rustic consolation; and Bruckner suggested it means to portray Deutscher Michel, an embodiment of the solid, national, German character. The elaborate Adagio in D-flat Major exudes a Wagnerian eroticism rare in Bruckner, enhanced by harp figurations and Wagner’s own tubas. Built upon two subject groups, the music progresses to the kind of radiance Wagner wanted not so much in Tristan but in Parsifal. Still, Nelsons paces – in slowly studied layers a la Celibidache – this awesome movement in the manner of the Liebesnacht in Tristan, wherein Bruckner’s Himmel hoch regards transcendence as immanence.
The last movement, Finale: Feierlich nicht schnell, monumentally exploits the sonic hyberpole available to the composer, those twelve horns and tympani, especially. The initial impetus literally gallops into existence: here, Nelsons invests a marcato that somewhat restrains the thunder. The secondary theme hovers between dirge and bucolic paean, but the tympani and plodding strings announce the intrusion of dark forebodings. These contesting forces – exhilarated, spiritual grandeur and fateful musing – will sustain their tempestuous confrontation for over twenty minutes, even, like Beethoven, recollecting themes from prior movements. Ineluctably, Bruckner lights his way from the throes of C Minor to the glories of C Major, even as he celebrates Wagner’s immortals in their entrance to Valhalla.
Conductor Nelsons says of Bruckner’s last completed symphony that its realization for him proved “an existential experience.” Lofty terms for a lofty vision.