MUSIC / When first thoughts are best: Before a Prom performance of the second version of Bruckner's Symphony No 1, Bayan Northcott reflects on the perils of revision

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Now here is a nice dilemma. In March 1890, the 65-year-old Anton Bruckner suddenly took up the score of his First Symphony, composed in Linz almost a quarter of a century before, and began to revise it bar by bar.

This retrospective fling was not apparently prompted by any of the dubious well-wishers who imposed on several of his other late editions. There is no evidence that the so-called Vienna version of the First, which duly appeared in 1893, comprises anything but Bruckner's authentic final thoughts. Yet almost everyone who has compared the Linz and Vienna scores seems to agree that the more fussy, sometimes coarsened revision amounts to a self-betrayal. How, then, can its programming ever be preferred - at least until the bolder, fresher Linz version is better established and understood than it is today? And must we accept that the urge to improve a work, carried through too drastically, or too long after its original creation, inevitably involves an element of destructiveness?

Such a question depends, of course, upon the notion of a work as a relatively defined and finished entity - a concept which established itself surprisingly late in Western music. One cannot exactly describe as revisions the kind of changes Handel made to his oratorios before almost every run of performances; it was simply Baroque common practice, within a still fairly fluid idea of the work as a whole, to alter the scoring to fit the conditions or to substitute arias to suit the singers. Even since the rise of the masterpiece concept and the standard repertory, the uses of revision have varied vastly. At the one extreme, there are the small changes most composers make after an initial performance - a rebalancing of dynamics here, rescoring of a chord there, the cutting of a few bars somewhere else - which are merely intended to clarify the effect they were aiming at in the first place. At the other extreme, there are evidently composers such as Boulez who cannot resist one change leading to another until they find themselves trapped in a potentially endless process of transformation - so calling into question the idea of the finished work all over again.

Granted, many composers have more or less done without revising altogether, either because they were too busy ever to find the time - something Britten used to lament - or because, as colossal producers like Milhaud, they were content to rely on the occasional lucky hit. Still others, such as Chopin, have worked with conscious deliberation in the hope of perfecting things first time round. And, of course, there have been strongly evolving composers, notably Schoenberg, who have found it almost impossible to get back on the creative wavelength of pieces written even shortly before. Meanwhile, the motives of more habitual revisers have ranged from Hindemith's urge to correct his younger efforts according to his later theories, to Stravinsky's more mundane need to renew his copyrights. What is so fascinating about Bruckner's development is its encompassing at one time or another such opposite responses to the question: to revise or not to revise.

Not the least striking move of his career, after some decent early works, was his agreement to forswear composing altogether between the ages of 31 and 37 while he submitted to a course in harmony and counterpoint of incredible thoroughness under the Austrian theorist Simon Sechter. By the end of this period he was evidently ready to burst with creativity. After a handful of practice pieces, he came out in his early forties with the three grandly symphonic masses and the impetuous First Symphony, which he nicknamed 'The Saucy Little Besom', or new broom. It was with the attempt to expand his forms and broaden his harmonic rate of change in the Third Symphony that he ran into trouble; despite three revisions, each including passages missing from the others, he could never really get it right.

By the Fourth, however, his self-criticism was more focused, and with the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh, he reached a plateau of self-confidence on which he rightly felt his initial versions required almost no revision at all. Then disaster struck. The conductor, Hermann Levi, upon whom Bruckner had come to depend, declared he could make nothing of the still vaster Eighth. All the old man's latent insecurity surged up and he gave himself over to a frenzy of revising. In fact, his second version of the Eight contained many improvements, doubtless because he was still in touch with its initial conception. But in the First, he proved quite unable to re-engage with his younger self.

The original Linz version already teems with harmonic and textural innovations. Unlike the mystic beginnings of any of the subsequent symphonies, it opens with a dour little march which, however, almost instantly flares up precipitously. There rapidly ensue an exquisite second subject in curvilinear two- part counterpoint and a sudden heroic apostrophe sounding like the entire 'Pilgrims' Hymn' from Wagner's Tannhauser buckled into six bars. Bruckner reactivates this idea early in the development, then pointedly withholds it in the recapitulation so that the movement's accumulated tension can discharge itself the more swiftly in the coda. The remotely ranging slow movement opens even more daringly with strange, oblique gropings towards its home key. It then proposes a flowing melody to which the accompaniment - perhaps uniquely in the 19th century - comprises rhythmic superimpositions of four against six against 10.

The stomping country-dance third movement represents a more regular model for Bruckner's massive later scherzos, though its harmonically ambiguous alpine trio remains among his most poetic. But the way the finale sweeps in is unique in Bruckner - who later likened it to someone bursting through a door and shouting 'Here I am]' Nor, despite his more customary dramatic pauses, some gracious secondary material and a marvellously fanciful episode in the development where the texture is invaded by trills, is the impulse ever really allowed to slacken - racing to the end with a combination of grandeur and despatch he was never to achieve again.

It was the scherzo that suffered least in the revision, even gaining a new lead passage back from the trio. Changes at the outset of the opening and slow movements are also relatively light - the odd counter-subject, harmonic complication or orchestral thickening. But they tend to accumulate, and the later stages of both movements are heavily recomposed and muddied - the slow movement being robbed of its curiously charming arpeggios of tripping flutes at the end. And the revised finale is a disaster. In his effort to bring it into line with his later music, Bruckner jams on the brakes at ever opportunity, culminating in a slow peroration which though it includes some of the most pungent progressions of his last period seems to have nothing to do with the earlier conception.

Yet this is the version Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra will be bringing to the Proms on Wednesday - ironically, for this same orchestra made perhaps the best recording ever of the original version under Bernard Haitink back in 1972. Chailly apparently thinks some of the Vienna version is 'worked out more intensely'; perish the thought that he may also have chosen it to chime in with his own 1988 recording on Decca. In any case, it seems a shame that the first-ever Bruckner First at the Proms will be heard in the compromised version of what, in its original, remains one of the most novel and exhilarating symphonies of the Romantic century.

Wednesday, 7.30pm, Royal Albert Hall and Radio 3. Box office 071-823 9998