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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 2 in C minor WAB 102 (1877 version, ed. William Carragan, 2007) [58:10]
Symphony No 8 in C minor WAB 108 (1890 version, ed. Leopold Nowak) [81:57]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Prelude to Act I (1867) [10:28]
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live 3-8 December 2019 (Prelude & Symphony No. 2) & 4-6 September 2019 (Symphony No. 8), Gewandhaus, Leipzig
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 9834 [68:47 + 81:59]

This is the fifth and, I assume, the penultimate issue in the ongoing Bruckner cycle from Andris Nelsons and the LGO; to complete it, the First and Fifth Symphonies will presumably be coupled on a final 2CD set with a Wagnerian curtain-raiser. There seems to be a good rapport between conductor and orchestra and their work has hitherto been generally well received, but previous reviewer Stephen Greenbank was much more impressed than Dan Morgan with this issue and, with regard to the Eighth in particular, I too have firm reservations.

As with the rest of the series, the symphonies are preceded by a Wagnerian prelude to underline the link between Bruckner and the Master of Bayreuth he revered. The Prelude to Die Meistersinger is given a thoroughly competent performance, rising to a grand climax with especially prominent timpani, but there are too many conductors to name who give the piece more character, either through making it more vivid and energised or by finding greater “pomp and pageantry” in the music. I would plump for Karajan in his 1970 studio recording, in superb analogue sound, as an example of one which blends the best of both approaches in an account full of swing and vigour with an infinitely more rousing conclusion; this from Nelsons emerges as rather bland and routine.

There is some logic in pairing the Second and Eighth symphonies; both are in C minor and despite their respective dates of composition being separated by fifteen years, they share certain very recognisable Brucknerian tropes which obtain throughout his nine symphonies. My go-to recordings for the Second Symphony have long been Giulini with the VSO, employing the 1872/77 Nowak Mixed Version, and Gerd Schaller with the Philharmonia Festiva, using the original and longer 1872 edition by Carragan, whereas here Nelsons opts for the 1877 version also re-edited and corrected by Carragan. I don’t think the choice of version matters as much as the conviction and musicality of the performance, hence I am happy to listen to all three of those and other versions besides.

Nelsons starts well; there is a lightness, delicacy and fleetness to his traversal of the bucolic opening and if his contention that the Second represents an ideal introduction to Bruckner’s symphonic output is debatable, his own affection for the work nonetheless comes through. Whereas the Meistersinger prelude is under-characterised, Nelsons’ refusal to make a parody of Bruckner’s style with exaggerated pauses and galumphing rhythms allows the music to emerge in a refined and unaffected fashion. There is a still a sense of unease in the tremolo strings and the brooding bass underlay but we move inexorably towards triumph. We know that the LGO is capable of producing the most opulent tone but Nelsons keeps their sound mostly lean and spare to ensure that this edgy movement does not become too comfortable, despite the pastoral themes. The thunderous coda is taut and emphatic.

At the heart of the symphony is the Andante - which might just as well be an Adagio - and Nelsons captures the yearning, beseeching quality of this movement, which anticipates the profundity of the slow movements in the later symphonies. His restraint facilitates a floating, mysterious, decidedly “spiritual” quality, making this a very successful centrepiece to the symphony.

The Scherzo could be a little more raucous, but the contrast between the shimmering Trio Ländler and the cheerful outer sections is very effective – and there is some lovely brass and woodwind playing to beguile our ears, building to a thumping climax.

The restless finale hangs together as Nelsons presses forward urgently and never lets its momentum falter. The “Alpine theme” which pervades this symphony is surely honoured by the careful, sensitive balancing of the episodic sections to create a coherent experience. I think any listener inclined to dismiss this symphony as the “juvenilia” (of a composer in his late 40’s!) would be converted and convinced, as I am, by this performance.

This being a double bill with a Wagnerian hors d’oeuvre, for all that Nelsons’ account of the Second Symphony is praiseworthy, the main focus of this release must be upon the Eighth as one of the greatest - if not the greatest - of late 19th century Romantic symphonies. The competition could hardly be fiercer; there are over four hundred recordings of this masterwork, so a new one has to have some kind of USP to make any impact. I refer you to Lee Denham’s admirable and extensive survey for as good an overview as it is possible to have – yet as he points out, as soon as one has decided what to include and exclude for reasons of practicality, another recording – such as this under review – appears, rendering a survey out-of-date.

I have to say that, for me, Nelsons’ opening generates little of the mystery and sense of expectation I experience in the finest accounts. For purposes of comparison, I played almost at random the beginning of Sinopoli’s Eighth with the Staatskapelle Dresden and immediately registered the difference between the two; Nelsons sounds flat and perfunctory compared with the care Sinopoli takes over shaping and dynamics – and his digital recording is superior, too. However, after that disappointing opening, Nelson’s pacing and control are admirably correct, but I will confess that I made numerous attempts to listen to this recording which ended in my being distracted and having to start again; it is, in fact, intermittently boring.

I have long maintained that Bruckner’s Scherzos are bombproof under a good conductor and orchestra and Nelsons’ sharp, propulsive account validates that assertion; it is beautifully played and paced. However, the acid test of any Bruckner Eighth is the Adagio, which is delivered here with conviction and affection, but there is also an air of deliberateness about it and somehow the shimmering halo of sound which envelops Karajan’s versions is missing. There are counteractive compensations such as the lovely orchestral starburst eight minutes in, but the great climaxes twelve minutes in and at 21:27 are a bit feeble; the latter, particular, lacks preparation and weight. There is sweetness here, without penetration or impact and the listener remains distant rather than engulfed. The finale begins rather too briskly to retain nobility and never really coheres, emerging as sporadic and episodic in character rather than sweeping the listener along to its Wagnerian conclusion and there is little about that ending to stir the blood.

In short, Nelsons has nothing much new to say about this symphony and what his greatest predecessors have said is both more coherent and more striking. Anyone in possession of one of the classic recordings already in the catalogue need not feel obliged to invest in this newer release.

Ralph Moore
(This review reproduced here by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal)

Previous reviews: Stephen Greenbank ~ Dan Morgan

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