How fortunate we are today to have the many fly-on-the-wall documentaries that reveal “the real story” behind the scenes. What would I give to have been able to listen in to the professional reactions, from friends and foes alike, to Bruckner’s early ventures into symphonic territory. He who had not heard the music of Wagner until the age of 40 before eventually finding his own unique voice and who then had to face an army of meddlers. “You can’t write this!” “You’ll have to change this bit here!” “This is going absolutely nowhere. Have you lost the plot?” How was the poor composer expected to respond? In our day he would be labelled as autistic; back then, with limited social skills and an underlying inferiority complex, he inevitably struggled. “Er, perhaps you’re right, I probably went too far there.” “What changes would you like me to make? I do want the public to understand my music.”

Paavo Järvi © Yong Bin
Paavo Järvi
© Yong Bin

Between the premiere of Bruckner’s Second Symphony in 1873 and the 1877 version given by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester under Paavo Järvi there were a number of revisions. The work had been deemed “unplayable” by the Vienna Philharmonic whose musicians likened it to Swiss cheese, so full of holes created by the many apparent stops and starts that it was immediately dubbed the Pausensymphonie. Did the supposed “improvements” markedly or even marginally enhance Bruckner’s original intentions? Let’s leave the musicologists to argue the merits of the case.

Järvi immediately pointed up the many structural features, already present in embryonic form in this C minor symphony, which later came to typify this composer’s instantly recognisable style. There was that yearning motif rising from the mists at the start, high cellos singing out and echoed by horns (which reached its apogee in the opening of the Seventh); the rhythmic underpinning from basses up which gives a sense of solidity; trumpets that generate a feeling of forward momentum. There was also a lightness of step and quickening of the spirit derived from gazing at the openness of the landscape, with hints of folksy merry-making heard from afar. It all sounded very close to the lyrical freshness which Bruckner’s contemporary Dvořák brings to his own early symphonies.

In the slow movement Bruckner adopts the marking feierlich (solemnly) for the first time, later to make familiar appearances. Here he also quotes from the Benedictus of his F Minor Mass (and makes use of the same work’s “Kyrie” in the finale), an element which reveals the degree of sacral inspiration in all his music. Even if those touches of warmth indicating that the heart is fully engaged were not always in evidence in Järvi’s reading – the important viola line was starved of emotional nourishment – I was impressed by the tenderness of much of the phrasing. There are so many passages for pizzicato strings, usually set against woodwind or horn solos (repeated in the finale) that it might be more appropriate to speak of a “pizzicato symphony”. These delicate pointillisme moments were very sensitively realised, basses often giving gentle, barely audible caresses to the sound. The movement emerged like an extended cradle-song, exquisitely conducted and played by the orchestra.

The Scherzo was fleet-footed rather than rugged (the marking is “moderately fast”), all windows and doors thrown open to a through draught, but the Trio section didn’t quite capture the heartache – one of those heart-stopping instances of profundity – which the violas are able to articulate. The finale brought fizzing energy from the strings and blazing fanfares from the brass. It was all told a very secular view of Bruckner, bracing but not necessarily embracing.

The evening, it has to be said, did not get off to a promising start. The American soprano, Laura Aikin, a late call for the indisposed Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, had been placed at the ten-past-two position on the platform, behind harp and celesta, at some distance from the conductor. This had the effect of making the vocal contribution in Berg’s Seven Early Songs an additional item of colouration rather than the star feature. Even with a reduced string complement grounded on four basses, the orchestral accompaniment was frequently too loud, quite surprising given Järvi’s later sensitivity to dynamics in the Bruckner. This meant that Aikin’s voice, despite its operatic qualities, failed to make its mark. It did not help that the soloist was often score-bound and the words – Berg drew on seven different poets of distinction – were often swallowed up. The cycle moves from the subterranean mysteries of the first and longest song Night through to the heady Romanticism of the concluding Summer days. Aikin’s rich chest tones gave weight to the impassioned penultimate Ode to Love. However, in the fifth song (Indoors), where the influence of Debussy’s harmonic palette is most apparent, there was little sense of intimacy.

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