As a noted Bayreuth Wagnerian of the 1970s, Horst Stein could be expected to have a good feeling for Bruckner. The two symphonies he recorded for Decca - there's also a Sixth - bear this out. His approach is workmanlike rather than galvanic or glamorous, but his firm line and sense of purpose convey a rugged, unaffected integrity. He lays out the broad melodies in a glowing cantabile
while maintaining a solidly weighted sonority.
The result, with the Vienna Philharmonic contributing full-bodied, variegated playing, is pleasing in a general way. If you know the music well, though - or if you're following it with a score - you may notice a lack of consistency in the handling of various musical matters.
The very start of the symphony, for example, displays the conductor's fine sense of orchestral texture: Stein draws both the 'cellos' theme (mezzo forte
) and the horns' counterpoint (piano
) in sharp relief against the strings (also piano
), to good effect. Some more simply layered passages, however, aren't as carefully defined. In the same movement, the trombones, of all instruments, have to fight their way through the tutti
at 8:02. What should be a clear, open sonority at 8:41 of the slow movement sounds a bit cloudy.
In other passages, an upward "marking" of dynamics, with numerous piano
passages creeping towards mezzo forte
, doesn't serve any apparent purpose. The strings don't sound quite sorted out at 4:20 of the first movement, nor the first time around theTrio
of the Scherzo
- on the repeat, Stein highlights the interplay of string lines nicely.
The conductor also has a fine feel for "atmosphere" - note the hushed mystery at the start of the first-movement development - but other such opportunities, as at 1:19 of the slow movement, elapse unacknowledged. In that same movement, the decorated restatement of the first theme at
4:52 is spacious and tender, but its unfolding later on, building the movement's climax, seems slightly rushed. General pauses, especially in the Finale
, don't always get their full value.
The Weber items, recorded four years later, are fine, but a different production team captures a "longer" resonance in the Sofiensaal, producing boomy bass and rendering the textures gummy and opaque.
As for the symphony, its handsome playing and recording and its forthright musicality have their undoubted appeal: I still enjoy the performance when I'm "just" listening. For a fuller realization of the score's drama and breadth, however, you're still best off with Haitink's now-venerable account - probably hard to find, alas, outside the old Philips "bargain box" reissue.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
Masterwork Index: Bruckner symphony 2