A Bruckner Second full of drama and delight at Ebrach

GermanyGermany Ebracher Musiksommer 2023 [2] – Bruckner: Philharmonie Festiva / Gerd Schaller (conductor). Ebrach Abbey, Ebrach, 1.10.2023. (KW)

Gerd Schaller and Philharmonie Festiva in Ebrach Abbey

Bruckner – Symphony No.2 (1877)

This was a splendid and exciting performance of the Second Symphony in its final version, from 1877. It was the sort of performance that leaves you wondering why this symphony is not much more popular than it is, why it is programmed hardly at all by major orchestras worldwide. It has so many attractive virtues, and these were exemplified in this performance by the Philharmonie Festiva under Gerd Schaller.

The opening high tremolo was immediately a magical sound, and the evocative cello theme beneath it had an expressive nobility which shortly transformed into something more animated when the dotted rhythms emerged, finally capped by what becomes a motto rhythm in the brass. The whole paragraph, from tremolo to rhythmic tutti, had a momentum and forward pulse that was to characterise the whole performance and bring an impressive sense of unity to the whole work.

The pianissimo drumbeats that occupy the pause between the first theme group and the Gesangsperiode ensured the sense of rhythmic vitality was maintained, taken up by the violins’ countersubject that underlies the cellos’ warm iteration of the Gesangsperiode  theme. The cellos played a big role in carrying the attractive melodies that abound in this symphony. The music intensifies and rises to a further announcement of the motto theme, on trumpets and then on the full brass – these fortissimo passages were very dramatic, and recurrent throughout the outer movements.

Horn solos also play a large part in the symphony, not least in the first movement development where in one of the highlights of the movement the violins play a delicate pizzicato accompaniment to a dialogue between a solo horn and violas, the horn repeating the symphony’s opening motive to great effect, with increasing intensity in rising registers. It sounded tremendous here in the reverberant acoustic of Ebrach Abbey.

In Bruckner’s revision the Adagio of 1872 became Andante in 1877 and Gerd Schaller’s lively view of the work accorded well with the composer’s revision. On its second and third appearances, the main theme blossomed into passages of great lyrical intensity. The second theme, again a horn solo above pizzicato strings, was cleanly and very beautifully played. The five-part form of the movement – ABABA – was entirely clear, the structure always coherent and effective, the movement flowed seamlessly from one enchanting moment to another. There was no horn solo in the closing pages of the slow movement, as there had been in 1872, but a beautifully played clarinet solo.

The Scherzo was full of energetic heft, repeats played the first time round but not in the da capo, but the da capo was enhanced by the additional coda with its prominent timpani part which was really very dramatic, very exciting. The Trio, also played with repeats, was not the dreamy lilting affair that some other performances elicit, but something a little more robust – when the cellos took hold of the theme, forte, it sounded quite earthy, like a rustic dance.

The symphony was a real delight to listen to and I found myself smiling at Bruckner’s decision to reverse the order of the two parts of the first theme of the finale for the recapitulation: the quiet, descending separated quavers that open the movement are moved to follow the dramatic fortissimo triplet-dominated tutti that they preceded in the exposition. I wonder why he chose to do that? That tutti brings with it the motto rhythm that had prevailed in the first movement. The rich counterpoint and varied orchestration of the Gesangsperiode were brought out well in this performance. The pervasive momentum throughout seemed to find its focus and ultimate destination in the fast final wave of the coda, the motto rhythm dominating in the brass and woodwinds, bringing everything to resounding dramatic conclusion.

It was very exciting to listen to, and a great pleasure to be reacquainted with this captivating symphony. In some ways it seems to look towards ‘a road not taken’, towards a Brucknerian style that was more lyrical and less monumental that it became with the Third Symphony. When Bruckner turned up at Wagner’s rented house at Bayreuth in 1873, he was carrying the scores of two great symphonies. Just suppose Wagner had been in the mood to choose Symphony No.2 as the one to receive the dedication and hence No.2 had become the Wagner Symphony, some of the special warm-hearted atmosphere of the Second may have been more often encountered in the great symphonies that followed.

Ken Ward

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