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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no.2 in c minor (1877 version, ed. Haas)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Günter Wand (conductor)
Recorded in Cologne, 1-5 December 1981
RCA/BMG 09026 63932-2:


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For Wand, as for many conductors, Bruckner really starts with the Third. He never performed the first two un-numbered symphonies and after his Cologne Radio recordings of the canonic nine, 1 and 2 are conspicuous by their absence from his many remakes. In his last interview he went some way to explaining why:

‘I will not conduct the First Symphony because it is an ailing piece. I consider this music to be totally unwell. Bruckner was in a phase when he was in very ill health, and one can feel this in this symphony, just as one can feel it in Schumann’s Second Symphony… But Bruckner’s Second Symphony has some beautiful moments. The second movement… that is beautiful. But we have this recording.’

… the last phrase implying, ‘and I don’t need to make another one’. (The curiosity about Wand’s strong opinions about the First is that he chose to record it in the later Vienna version of 1891, which is now all but repudiated in favour of the original Linz version of 1865. He makes a strong case for it, but the original version stands on far steadier legs).

As Robert Simpson says in his invaluable study, ‘After all this harping on inequalities in no.2, it is necessary to describe it as a most beautiful symphony, too little known.’ The very first, mobile string subject, quickly answered by a brass motif that both manages to stand on one note and yet press forward suspensefully, is one of his most exciting inspirations. That many of the later themes and practices of orchestration are so reminiscent of late Schubert is not a slur on Bruckner’s originality of thought but a recognition of his artistic heritage and of his years of study in Vienna with Simon Sechter, Schubert’s teacher.

In view of the work’s pedigree, Wand’s determination to maintain the music’s flow is an idiomatic one, even if it is at the occasional expense of its potential for grandeur, especially in the finale (where of those conductors who perform Haas’s edition of the 1877 version, Wand is almost the fleetest of all). In this last recording of the Cologne cycle, Wand’s players follow him through its contrapuntal intricacies with fewer mishaps and greater care for tonal beauty than earlier instalments. Given the first horn’s heroic playing in the second subject of the Adagio and its transformation, it’s all the sadder that Wand denies him his moments of radiant glory at the close of that movement and, in common with some others, assigns his part to the clarinet. Wand’s treatment of the Adagio, though, is especially successful, easeful where Karajan is almost inappropriately intense and Haitink flaccid, without underplaying the chromatic outerworld where Bruckner sometimes, surprisingly takes his themes (all of which have a devotional character and the second is a straight lift from the Benedictus of his F minor Mass).

The scherzo could benefit from more of Karajan’s intensity; also from the observance of the second-half repeat of the Scherzo (he takes that marked for the first half) and from a little more time over the swinging but by no means cloudless Trio. The coda to this movement is thrilling; it seems a shame that Bruckner abandoned the idea of twisting the material for his Scherzos at their conclusion so early on: this appeared to be the last one until Haitink performed one of similarly unpredictable character on his second recording of the Third a decade ago: now it is commonplace.

Where Bruckner becomes trickier to follow in the Finale Wand relaxes considerably for the unexpectedly serene second theme, but otherwise grips the music perhaps a little tightly for its own good. Here Giulini is unmatched at drawing the threads together with Classical restraint and entirely individual verve. I don’t know of a recording of the Second which is ideal, but Wand comes as close as most - and happily the engineers appear to have cured the balance problems and raw brass noise which afflict the Eighth and Ninth from a couple of years earlier.

Peter Quantrill

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