DOUBLE PLAY / Now take a deep breath: Stephen Johnson and Robert Cowan on new releases of Bruckner and Beethoven

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BRUCKNER: Symphony

No 2 (ed Haas)

Royal Concertgebouw

Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly

(Decca 436 154-2)

BRUCKNER is treading new ground in the Second - cautiously, sometimes falteringly, but with obvious delight at the new vistas opening around him. Its original nickname was 'The Pause Symphony', and in some performances it can lose its thread too often for normal human patience. But in this sympathetic new recording one can hear why Bruckner wants to stop, draw breath and look around him.

As a musical landscape, the Second is unique. It evokes the rolling greenness of Bruckner's Heimat - the woodlands, rivers, fields and distant Alps - as vividly as Elgar recalls his. The human element is there too, as in the yodelling viola tune in the trio, somewhere between Mahler and Schubert - knowing and innocent at the same time.

The Concertgebouw respond with sensitivity and affection to detail after detail, and Chailly's sense of pacing is outstanding. You can sense the broad, slow current even when the great river seems momentarily to be lost to view. Perhaps early Bruckner is going to get his due at last. SJ

IT'S heartening that, while most record companies are mercilessly over-exploiting standard repertoire, Decca has recently released two very different versions of Bruckner's comparatively unfamiliar Second Symphony. Solti's highly mobile reading of Nowak's cut edition appeared last year, and now Chailly and the Concertgebouw join Masur and Wand in presenting Bruckner's full 'first version'.

The Second has too often cowered in the shadow of its more popular, and rather more assured, successors. Yet it's a wonderful score - expansive, melodious, structurally multi-tiered and packed full of monumental orchestral incident.

Although Haas's restored cuts are significant, I'd still be reluctant to part with the more extrovert Solti or Jochum's lean but perceptive DG version. Chailly is relatively relaxed and engagingly lyrical: his handling of the haunting first theme is as atmospheric as any rival's. But crescendos later on don't quite generate the requisite power and sense of contrast.

The Scherzo and Finale are nicely pointed and keenly attenuated, while the Adagio is superbly done - especially near the end, where the rapt opening string melody re-appears. Chailly's handling of this movement, one of Bruckner's most exquisite utterances, offers a pretty viable reason for choosing his impressively engineered CD. RC


Op 101 and Op 106


Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

(Decca 436 735-2)

TWO quite different impressions in these two late sonatas. The change of recording locations and microphone settings adds to the effect: I prefer the bright immediacy of the Hammerklavier sound to the more spacious but slightly clangorous tone in Op 101's fortissimos. But I think Ashkenazy's approach is more suited to the gritty striving and soul-scouring of the Hammerklavier than to the tender intimacy of Op 101. The palette may be restricted, but the outer movements are purposeful, with strongly etched phrasing, the abrupt changes of the Scherzo have a discomfiting logic, and the Adagio is just as it should be - a slow but impassioned voyage of discovery. The finale's strange cadenza-introduction is at once a gradual piecing together of fragments and a huge crescendo of energy - the fugue almost explodes from its final ringing trills. It takes an exceptional interpreter to see this vast work as a single experience, but Ashkenazy has been steeped in it for a long time, and it shows. SJ

OPUS 101 expresses something of the elemental change you sense when the midnight tide changes beneath a full moon. Its brief Adagio seems to condense a lifetime of sorrow into a mere 20 bars; yet moments later, daylight breaks and affirmation reigns supreme.

Ashkenazy stresses its Romantic properties, but his handling of the first movement, although palpably considered and thoughtfully executed, is oddly prosaic: forte chords tend towards brittleness, and there's little in the way of structural projection.

The Hammerklavier is thinner in tone (it was taped 11 years earlier) but, interpretatively, hits target more often. The first movement eschews extremes and, in doing so, compromises a native recklessness; yet the playful Scherzo is excellent, with a particularly sombre, Eroica- style central section, and the Adagio - an epic journey in itself - is well sustained and poetically phrased. But the real high spot is a triumphant finale. Here Ashkenazy is a frisky colt champing at the bit: buoyant, fiery, clear- headed, even elegant - and yet consistently maintaining the essential feeling of 'conflict overcome'. RC