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Bruckner: Symphony No 2 / Venzago, Northern Sinfonia

Release Date: 06/26/2012 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777735   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Anton Bruckner
Conductor:  Mario Venzago
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Northern Sinfonia
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 56 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 2 (1877 version, ed. Carragan) Mario Venzago, cond; Northern Snf CPO 777 735-2 (56:27)

Bruckner’s Second is actually his fourth completed symphony; it was preceded by the early “Study” (1863), the First (1866), and No. 0 (1869). The composer was in a happy frame of mind after his celebrated 1871 organ recitals at London’s Albert Hall, and the year in which he completed the first draft of the Second (1872) also bore witness to the successful debut of his Read more Mass No. 3 (which was praised even by the Vienna music critic Eduard Hanslick, who would later become Bruckner’s arch-enemy). Two allusions to that Mass appear in the Second: the Andante ’s coda quotes from the Benedictus (the music sung to the words “In nomine Domini”), and the Kyrie is quoted in the finale (the music to “Eleison, eleison”). While his Third is widely regarded as Bruckner’s “break-through” symphony, the Second features the first appearance of the so-called “Bruckner rhythm”— triplets followed by duplets or vice versa (initially heard here under Mario Venzago in the trumpet line starting at 0:33 of the first movement).

Due to its many interruptions by bars loaded with rests, the Second was nicknamed early on as the “Symphony of Pauses.” Those pauses, which seem to be an attempt to clarify the work’s formal structure, were likely a reaction to Otto Dessoff’s criticism of No. 0 (conductor Dessoff, while rehearsing No. 0 in 1870, had deflated Bruckner’s hopes by asking: “But where is the first subject?”). As a result, the pauses can give the Second a rather episodic quality, which might account for the work’s relative lack of popularity. However, the Second is arguably Bruckner’s most lyrical symphonic creation, and it’s one of my special favorites.

There are two main versions of the Second—the 1872 first draft (never performed until 1991) and the revised version of 1877. In addition, there are two variants of the 1872 (the 1873 first performance text used by Bruckner when he led the work’s premiere at Vienna, and a slightly tweaked score for another concert in 1876), plus a later variant of the 1877 revision that became the work’s first publication (by Doblinger) in 1892. To my ears, the original 1872 is too repetitive and unwieldy—at 806 bars total, the finale is Bruckner’s lengthiest. By contrast, the much shortened 1877 revision re-titles the Adagio as a faster Andante that’s placed second, with the Scherzo moved to the third slot (apparently Bruckner was fearful of being censured for imitating the movement order of Beethoven’s Ninth); the Scherzo and Trio repeats are expunged, and the horn solo in the Andante ’s coda is replaced by clarinet (most of those changes first appear in the 1873 variant, which added to the Andante a brief obbligato violin solo that was eliminated in 1877). Multiple cuts are made in the first two movements, and the finale is reduced to 615 bars; overall, the more concise 1877 revision is some 250 bars shorter than the 1872 original.

But when Robert Haas edited the 1877 revision in 1938, he inserted several passages from the 1872 original, reinstated the horn solo in the Andante , and added back all of the Scherzo/Trio repeats, thereby conflating two separate versions of the score. Leopold Nowak’s 1965 edition of the 1877 revision is mostly a reprint of the Haas, but Nowak places all of the passages added by Haas in brackets [not to be played]; the Scherzo/Trio repeats are removed, and the Andante ’s coda solo is given to clarinet (with horn given as an alternative). The “pure” Nowak edition, when followed exactly, is quite similar to the first published score; the differences between them are mainly the expression marks and tempo indications added by Bruckner in 1892, plus minor changes in orchestration and a slightly expanded coda for the finale. Venzago performs the 1877 revised version in the William Carragan edition, which incorporates many changes made by Bruckner in 1892 (Carragan also corrects the erroneous trumpet parts given by Haas and Nowak near the end of the first movement’s coda).

Out of some 40 recordings of the Second that I have heard, my interpretive benchmarks are from two conductors who were born during Bruckner’s lifetime and who happened to die in the same year: Volkmar Andreae (1879-1962) and Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962). The urgently swift and deftly nuanced 1953 Andreae/Vienna Symphony (in a Music and Arts set of Symphonies Nos. 1-9; see Fanfare 33:3) is notable for its crusty swagger and passionate enthusiasm (15:43, 13:19, 7:51, 13:52 = 50:45), while the Rosbaud/Southwest German Radio (a broadcast with no audience from December 13, 1956) is a more relaxed and gently lyrical reading of unusual warmth (19:05, 17:26, 8: 35, 15:43 = 60:49), on a private tape from the orchestra’s archives that hopefully will be released on CD in the near future. Andreae performs the Haas edition, but plays only the brief first repeats in the Scherzo/Trio; all of the other Haas additions are omitted. Rosbaud uses the complete Haas edition. Both recordings offer decent mono sound.

Venzago’s Second, in gorgeously clear and upfront sound, was recorded in 2011 at the Northern Sinfonia’s home, the Sage in Gateshead. He is currently principal conductor of this compact English orchestra, which has a total force of about 44 (including some 24 string players). Venzago’s pacing is a shade quicker than the current norm (16:13, 17:42, 7:02, 15:30 = 56:27), but if he were performing the longer Haas edition, the total duration would be fairly close to Rosbaud’s. Venzago’s thoughtful and deeply felt reading is quite liberal in its use of rubato, but it never crosses the line into mere agogic distortion; even the many pauses seem to be pregnant with expectation. Woodwinds and brass are unusually vivid and expressive; strings use varied degrees of vibrato and convey the music’s warmth without sounding unduly ascetic. What’s heard here feels like a collaborative labor of love between conductor and orchestra.

Venzago’s account may not be a match for the nuanced zeitgeist delivered so inimitably by Andreae and Rosbaud, but you do get superb stereo, left-right division of first and second violins, and a level of execution more precise than what’s heard in my 1950s benchmarks. Of course, there are other stereo Bruckner Seconds worth exploring. For the 1872 original, I would seek out Kurt Eichhorn’s reading on a deleted two-disc set from Camerata (67:16 on 30CM-195/6), mainly because it’s coupled with the only recording of the 1873 variant (61:29). For the complete Haas edition of the 1877 revision, I still prefer Hans Zender (59:30 on deleted Amati), despite rather stiff handling of the Trio and some strident bluster in the finale’s closing bars (Eichhorn and Zender both employ full-sized ensembles). Thomas Dausgaard’s recent SACD account (60:33 on BIS) uses reduced forces that achieve a high level of virtuosity comparable to Venzago’s Northern Sinfonia in the 1877 revised version (the Swedish Chamber Orchestra numbers about 46 total). Dausgaard plays the Nowak edition, but adds a brief passage from Haas in the finale that recalls the work’s opening bars (from 16:13 to 16:50); Dausgaard is also one of only two Nowak conductors (the other is Inbal on Teldec) who opt for horn solo in the Andante ’s coda (the Carragan edition played by Venzago specifies clarinet as the composer’s final wish on that matter). Interpretively, the Dausgaard strikes me as too evenly metrical in pacing and rather cool in expression. However, it likely will be of appeal to those who prefer their Bruckner straightforward and emotionally restrained. But when all things are considered, Venzago’s more impassioned way with the Northern Sinfonia is now my top choice for an 1877 revised version in first-rate stereo sound.

FANFARE: Jeffrey J. Lipscomb
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 2 in C minor, WAB 102 by Anton Bruckner
Conductor:  Mario Venzago
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Northern Sinfonia
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1872-1876; Vienna, Austria 
Length: 56 Minutes 30 Secs. 

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