BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (1877 Version) ed. Leopold Nowak – Swedish Chamber Orch./Thomas Dausgaard – BIS multichannel SACD, SACD-1829 [Distr. by Qualiton], 61:38 *****:
The Symphony No. 2 was the first successful symphony Bruckner wrote in Vienna, where he was installed as professor of music theory at the Conservatory of the University. His First Symphony, debuted in Linz in 1866, helped get him the job in Vienna, whereas his next symphony of 1869 was rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic as unplayable. Bruckner withdrew this symphony altogether, and following its debut long after the composer’s death, it ended up being tagged Die Nulte (Symphony 0), an outcast from the canonical Nine.
Initially, the Second Symphony was rejected as well by the Philharmonic, but Bruckner decided to stick to his guns on this one and with financial aid from royalty mounted a performance that he conducted himself in 1873. It proved popular with audiences but puzzled the critics. The hugeness of its movements, the alternation between long-drawn-out quiet passages and great climaxes, and most of all the strange pauses sprinkled throughout the work gave critics. . .pause. In fact, the symphony acquired the nickname Pausensinfonie because of this last fact.
To compound Bruckner’s difficulties with the Second, the composer showed the scores of both the Second and Third Symphonies to his musical hero, Richard Wagner, and Wagner pointedly expressed preference for the Third because of the stirring trumpet theme in the first movement. All of this was enough for Bruckner to have serious doubts about the Second, so he revised it substantially in 1877, cutting some 250 bars of music (or about 10 percent of the total length), changing the tempo of the slow movement from Adagio to Andante, switching the order of the scherzo and slow movement, and ditching some of those troublesome pauses.
The performing version by Leopold Nowak uses Bruckner’s later version as its basis but attempts to mediate somewhat between Bruckner’s emendations and his first thoughts for the symphony. The Second is generally heard today either in this version or in the one put together by Robert Haas in the 1930s; Thomas Dausgaard opts for the Nowak version. By the way, if you want to hear Bruckner’s original version of 1872, that’s available, too, in a performance by Georg Tintner and the NSO of Ireland on Naxos; predictably, it runs ten minutes longer than Dausgaard’s performance and makes for instructive listening.
It’s sad that Bruckner hit so many roadblocks with the Second Symphony. After all, this is the first symphony that really gives us the Bruckner sound, with all its craggy grandeur. Yet it also hints more directly than the later symphonies at the roots of Bruckner’s symphonic writing in Beethoven and especially Schubert. The last grand symphonies of both composers showed Bruckner the way forward, and it’s easy to hear those classical roots in Bruckner’s Second Symphony.
That’s especially true in a performance such as the one being considered here, part of a series by Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra called Opening Doors. It’s an attempt to blow the cobwebs off some symphonic favorites that often get bloated treatments from standard symphony orchestras. Dausgaard has already turned his attention to Schubert, Schumann, and Dvorak, and while critical reception has been mixed, the consensus seems to be that Dausgaard and his forces have managed to freshen up the pieces they’ve recorded.
Given those classical roots I mentioned earlier, the Second Symphony benefits from some fresh air. Working with a reduced string body, Dausgaard is able to let the various musical strands really stand out. Those climaxes dominated by the brass have a Schubertian purity of utterance, and they sound merely grand rather than disproportionate. This is the quality I admire in Georg Tintner’s performance of the 1872 version mentioned earlier. Of course, Dausgaard has the advantage of BIS’s surround-sound recording. The best thing about the BIS sound is the sense of depth and placement it conveys: that big timpani tattoo in the coda of the scherzo (following one of those famous pauses) occupies a definite place in space and makes quite an impact. The strings have a lovely sheen to them in this recording, while brass and especially winds are very present.
One matter I had to adjust to, however, was the placement of the instruments. Trumpets and trombones are situated just to the left of the podium, while horns and lower strings are just to the right. Dausgaard seems to have opted for this arrangement so he could place second violins on the far right, where Bruckner would have expected to find them in performance. A commendable idea, perhaps, but not what I’m used to. It’s a small matter, though, given the excellence of the performance and utter fidelity of the recording. I recommend this disc for the doors it can open on Bruckner’s Second Symphony.
— Lee Passarella