Recording of the Week,
Andris Nelsons conducts Bruckner's Second and Eighth Symphonies
In what now seems like a lifetime ago given current travel restrictions, in September 2019 I was lucky enough to find myself in Leipzig to hear Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester performing my favourite Bruckner symphony, namely the Eighth. It was a magnificent concert, and I am delighted that they have now reached this symphony in their ongoing recorded Bruckner cycle, coupled with the Second Symphony.
The Second is sometimes given the nickname of "Symphony of Pauses", in reference to (unsurprisingly) the number of pauses within movements. Although I think this is slightly unfair, it can't be denied that the closing minutes of the first movement in particular do contain a reasonable number of pregnant silences. One of the things that pleased me most about this performance, therefore, was the way that Nelsons, by subtle and judicious use of rubato, manages to smooth out these kinks and give shape to the movements without too much of a "stop-start" feeling.
As I've mentioned before when reviewing Nelsons's Bruckner, his mission is seemingly to eschew a more strident approach where everything becomes just a boisterous, blaring festival of brass, concentrating instead on ensuring that interesting details and counter-melodies don't get lost in the mix. Admittedly I did find myself yearning for something a little more penetrating from the trombones here and there (this is probably just my bias as a low brass player!), and yet his method demonstrably pays more dividends in the long run.
Any occasional lack of brassy bite is more than compensated for by the warmth of tone from the Leipzig strings, especially throughout the second movement, where they bring an Elgarian nobility to their almost impossibly-hushed sound, never sacrificing an ounce of expression no matter how quietly they are asked to play. It is helped by Nelsons noting that this is an Andante and not an Adagio, so he keeps it moving in a way that is suitably spacious but never feels like it is about to grind to a halt.
This movement allows ample time for other sections to shine, too: I've always been a fan of the timbre of the Leipzig woodwind, with fruity oboes and an earthiness to the clarinets and bassoons that comes across wonderfully in their many interjections. The end of the movement is sublimely done, with a wistful flute and solo violin giving way to tender yet delicate string chords underneath the fading musings of a solitary clarinet. Nelsons's earlier strategy of holding back the brass pays off in the Scherzo, as all of a sudden they unleash their might, continuing into the last movement where their power and force provide a satisfying culmination to the symphony.
Focussing on the lyrical aspect of Bruckner's music also works extremely successfully in the slow movement of the Eighth: again the tranquil radiance of the Leipzig strings in the opening bars is quite mesmerising. The Eighth is the only symphony in which Bruckner asks for a harp (technically, it's actually three harps, as he requests that the single written part be strengthened with an extra two players!). Even here, they are used exceedingly sparingly: two brief places in the Trio section of the Scherzo, and then a handful of moments in this slow movement. It's an inspired inclusion, however, and the sequences of ethereal string chords, underpinned by angelic harp arpeggios, are exquisitely realised in this recording.
Nelsons's cycle began back in 2017 with the Third Symphony, and it has been a pleasure to listen to every subsequent instalment. By my calculations all we need now to complete this splendid series are the First and Fifth symphonies, and I look forward to hearing those immensely.