Endnotes, May 2020
In this edition: Bruckner’s Second Symphony, by Stuart Millson
Anton Bruckner (1824-96), organist, Wagnerphile and symphonist, has come to represent the pure, almost naive spirit of late-romanticism. From his earliest days in the Catholic church, to the splendid heights of his last two great achievements – the mighty Eighth and (unfinished) Ninth Symphonies – the composer was always outside the metropolitan tides and ways of music. Uncomfortable in fashionable Vienna and other Austro-German capitals, he was prone to bring a plate of cakes to the conductor’s door – to thank him for a great performance.
Commonly described as “cathedrals in music”, his symphonies bring together great moments – episodes where light streams through a stained-glass window, or breathless phrases which echo fragments of church music, or (at a particular point in the Fifth Symphony, for example) a passing phrase reminiscent of an idea in Mozart’s Requiem. In the Eighth Symphony’s scherzo, we have a headlong rush into Alpine meadows and byways, as Bruckner embraces the almost pagan, life-loving spirit of “Deutsche Michel” – the legendary, Teutonic equivalent of an English yeoman. And in the Seventh Symphony, generally considered his most radiant, there is (again in the scherzo movement) a definite undercurrent of tension, almost a sinister pace that seems to give the music a thrilling, dangerous edge.
In the opinion of this reviewer, the first time that Bruckner gets into his stride and in which the aforementioned characteristics can all be found, is in his Second Symphony, of 1872. In fact, so accomplished is this work that is difficult to understand why there are so few performances in concert halls, even in Germany and Austria; and why, in any review of Bruckner symphonic cycles, the Second always seems to be bottom of the pile – if not disregarded.
The Second Symphony opens in typical Bruckner fashion, promising a dawn of brass and orchestral power – as if climbing onto a plateau and then finding a mountain path on which to strike out for even greater heights. A fanfare-like section, with a heavy rhythm and momentum, suggests uncompromising onward motion, but also struggle and steadiness in its face. The fascinating opening movement, 20 minutes in length – a symphony almost in itself – also contains a darker, nervous, repetitive, eddying phrase, played on deep, low strings – that sinister spirit (as noted earlier) which crops up unexpectedly in the Seventh Symphony – but which dissolves, to broaden out and away into a lyrical, noble flow of music.
Usually, the scherzo movement comes third, but in the definitive performance by Bruckner veteran and expert, the late Geog Tintner, the eleven-minute sequence, marked “Scherzo Schnell” bursts into life immediately after the passing clouds and storms of the opening movement. But it is here that we find the pastoral Bruckner – the composer even summoning the benign ghost of Franz Schubert in a tender, simple, meltingly warm-hearted country waltz. Tensions, though, rise again – the movement ending in a complicated, relentless, yet at the end, emphatic statement hammered out on timpani – a thrilling experience, not to be found in any of the composer’s other symphonies, save perhaps the Third.
The Andante – again, an absorbing span of just under 20 minutes – begins with one of Bruckner’s most pure beatitudes – a genuinely lovely piece of writing, which makes the listener think of a composer bowing his head before God, or even holding out a flower to a beloved muse. The Fourth Symphony is known as “The Romantic” but the Second Symphony also merits this subtitle. The epic finale, marked ‘Mehr schnell’, is a grand coda to the work: energy, magnificent passages for brass, and then, right at the last, an unexpected almost jaunty rhythm from the sound-world of Schubert – emphasising Bruckner’s classical, not just romantic character.
Georg Tintner described the Second Symphony as Bruckner’s symphony of “pauses” – and we tend to think always of the composer’s grand brass chorales and “Wagner moments”. Here, in the mountain foothills of Symphony No. 2, we have anticipations of the pinnacles of the Ninth, on which he began work some fifteen years later.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
CD details: Bruckner, Symphony No. 2, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, conducted by Georg Tintner, Naxos, 8.554006.