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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Meistersinger Prelude [10:28]
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. Nowak) [81:59]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, May 2019, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4839834 [68:47 + 81:59]

By my reckoning, this is the fifth volume in Andris Nelsons’ ongoing Bruckner cycle, begun back in 2016. Symphonies 1 and 5 are left to complete the series. The orchestra is the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. The previous volumes have been reviewed by my colleagues and can be found here (review ~ review ~ review ~ review). Each includes an orchestral work by Wagner, of whom Bruckner was a fervent admirer, and in the case of this newly released issue we are treated to the Mastersinger Prelude. Nelsons’ reading is both rousing and vigorous, capturing the music’s majestic and celebratory character; it provides the ideal curtain raiser.

Nelsons laments the fact that the Second Symphony is unjustly neglected, and considers it “an ideal point of entry for anyone wanting to explore the world of Bruckner’s Symphonies”. It was written in 1871 and 1872, and was premiered on October 26, 1873 with the composer himself conducting. He made revisions in 1876, and conducted this version on February 20, 1876. Further revisions were made in 1877 and in 1879, putting some finishing touches to the work in 1892 prior to publication. My preferred version of this beautiful Symphony is Giulini’s 1974 account with the Wiener Symphoniker. He employs the 1877 version (Nowak Edition). Nelsons, on the other hand, uses the revised 1877 version edited by William Carragan and published in 2007.

The symphony is often nick-named the “Symphony of Pauses”. The opening of the first movement, where tremolo strings form a brooding backdrop to an anxious and edgy melody, bears the distinctive fingerprints of the composer. Then there’s one of those pauses before the second subject enters - a glorious buoyant pastoral theme. Throughout there’s some attractive interplay between the woodwinds. Nelsons is a skilled hand at revealing the manifold details that lie therein. The Andante, which follows in this edition, is the emotional heart of the work. Nelsons’ radiant opening casts a magical spell. He allows the music to gently unfold, breathe and bloom. Everything mystically floats. The athletic Scherzo provides a striking contrast and, once again, the colourful woodwinds are pointed up, and the burnished brass sing out. The trio is a gentle Lšndler. Nervous undercurrents characterize the opening measures of the finale. Soon the music builds up with potent intensity. Nelsons welds the various contrasting sections, interspersed with pauses, into one integrated flow.

The Eighth Symphony has to be my favorite of the nine, and will be much more familiar. I’ve collected several versions over the years, but the ones I return to most often are Karajan’s two later versions, recorded 1975 with the BPO and 1988 with the VPO. I also gravitate enthusiastically towards the live Wand version, set down with the BPO in January 2001, which John Quinn reviewed, nominating it a Recording of the Month. Both Karajan and Wand use the Haas version, Nelsons employs the Novak. It makes good sense to yoke the Eighth to the Second. Both are C minor and, like its predecessor, the Eighth opens with a brooding first subject. The Symphony is an awe-inspiring creation, with its moments of dark anguish, powerful drama and spiritual expression. Nelsons has full measure of its magnificent architecture, structure and lofty vision, delivering a reading of radiant beauty. An inspirational conductor, he draws the very best from his players, who respond with deep commitment, warmth and affection. Tempi throughout are judiciously chosen, with phrasing controlled and dynamic variance detailed. Climaxes are excellently judged and ecstatic in their intensity. The beautiful Adagio is spacious and allowed to breathe and reveal its wonders.

These performances are persuasive and superbly executed, with sound quality second to none. Balance and dynamic range can’t be faulted, and documentation is respectable.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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