Before this chamber performance of Bruckner’s Second Symphony, Trevor Pinnock gave a short introductory talk, pointing out that, before the days of ubiquitous recording, music was always heard live, and chamber arrangements were an important aspect of disseminating music. He situated the present performance in the tradition of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performance, with the difference that on those occasions there was no applause allowed and – horror! – no critics admitted. Fortunately, not merely was I allowed in to this concert, but also to cheer and applaud with all the enthusiasm this magical performance deserved. Royal Academy of Music students have previously performed a chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony as arranged by Schoenberg’s colleague Erwin Stein, but this arrangement of Bruckner’s Second Symphony is something newly-minted by composer Anthony Payne. He has made a version that effected some but not all of the optional cuts, had the horn solo at the end of the slow movement (as opposed to clarinet and viola that Bruckner changed it to later), observed no repeats in the Scherzo but included a full two-bar pause before its coda, and retained reminiscences of the themes from the first movement in the Finale coda.

Trevor Pinnock with RAM students © Hana Zushi, Royal Academy of Music
Trevor Pinnock with RAM students
© Hana Zushi, Royal Academy of Music

Bruckner in arrangement for a small ensemble is not unprecedented. There exists – also originating from Schoenberg’s SPMP – a chamber arrangement of the Seventh, which is very effective. Even so, I was unprepared for the sheer Schubertian charm that this performance provided, and the manifold revelations afforded by Payne’s excellent arrangement. It began, briefly, as a string quartet, the accenting of the strings’ sextuplet ostinato having wonderful clarity in the hands of two violins and viola, and the presentation of the main theme by a solo cello played with a rapt expressiveness that is impossible to achieve with a full body of strings. In this arrangement, the presence of a solo cello, so fabulously played as it was by Pei-Jee Ng, was an enhancement of communicative power that went straight to the heart throughout the performance, and when in dialogue with the equally fabulous horn playing of Anna Douglass and Carys Evans (from where I was sitting it was not possible to identify which of these two played which solo) it was sheer magic. And at times two instruments could create as much, if not more, excitement that the full body of strings: there was a moment in the third theme of the finale where cello and double bass (Andrei Mihailescu) launched into four bars of a descending line of quavers with such visceral power that the performance of the finale by all the players seemed lifted thereafter to an even higher level of intensity.

The clarity with which the rhythms were delivered was one of the main benefits of this chamber arrangement. I’d never been so aware before that the Finale’s main theme is formed with quick triplets – in a full orchestra these often sound like duplets. Occasionally the rhythmic precision was further accentuated by subtle contributions from the piano. The arrangement also made use of a harmonium, though its contribution seemed so subtle as to be inaudible – but maybe one would have noticed had it not been there to fill out the texture. What suffered mostly was the violin line during the tutti, where the two solo violins could sometimes be overshadowed by the winds – which was a shame because the playing of Eloisa-Fleur Thom and Júlia Pusker when heard in the sections for strings alone was deeply eloquent – absolutely wonderful in the slow movement and the chorale in the finale.

Trevor Pinnock – not the first conductor who would come to mind when you think of Bruckner performance – directed with exemplary cogency, unembarrassed by the frequent general pauses that gave this symphony its nickname Pausensinfonie. It was sheer joy to hear so much, to be surprised by the music revealed that can often be less apparent in full orchestral performances. Editors and conductors have played fast and loose with Bruckner symphonies, so we are entitled to view with some circumspection yet another version, but it may be that the main benefit of hearing the symphony this way is what it will bring to our appreciation of the work when we hear it performed as the composer intended – so much that can pass us by hidden in fullness of the general texture was brought into the light by this splendid ensemble of soloists.

After hearing Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, Johann Strauss sent a telegram to Bruckner: “I am completely overcome. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.” So it was not inappropriate to follow the Bruckner with a performance of the Waltz King’s Wine, Women and Song, in an arrangement by Alban Berg, where at last the harmonium came to the fore, and all the players communicated their enjoyment and delight to us, the privileged audience.