Bruckner Redrawn

Philip Clark
Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The view of Bruckner’s symphonies as vast musical statements is challenged by a ‘miniaturised’ version of the Second by Antony Payne. This ‘bare-boned Bruckner’ raises wider questions about the composer’s intentions, writes Philip Clark

Every February for the past three years, Trevor Pinnock and a carefully chosen group of top-notch instrumental students from the Royal Academy of Music in London have stepped back in time to 1920s Vienna to experience the world of Arnold Schoenberg and his Society for Private Music Performance. To those who consider Schoenberg the root of everything that went wrong with modern composition during the 20th century, the idea thus invoked of Masonic secret rooms – nod twice and ask for Arnold – where cut-throat atonal music was played before an audience of 12-tone cronies feels like all the justification needed to monster Schoenberg for being elitist and aloof, a composer whose instincts led him to lurk in the shadows. The truth, though, is rather different. The importance of ‘performance’ overrode ‘private’, and Schoenberg was unambiguous in his intent. His society existed for the delectation of genuine music lovers, bringing them can-do chamber arrangements of unwieldy and expensive-to-mount orchestral works that they otherwise would have been unlikely to hear. Critics were banned, and audiences were required to commit ahead by subscribing, often arriving at concerts having no idea what they were about to hear.

All of which leaves a big, fat 21st-century question hanging. Why revive the ideals of Schoenberg’s Society now – performing mini arrangements of Mahler, Debussy and Zemlinsky – when all the music we could ever want to hear, and as composers actually orchestrated it, is but a mouse-click away? In 2012, the first year of the RAM’s project to explore the milieu around Schoenberg’s Society the focus was on the reduced orchestration made by Schoenberg pupil Erwin Stein of Mahler’s Symphony No 4 and an arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune by another Schoenberg protégé Benno Sachs. This year Pinnock and the students are working on Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Zemlinsky’s Six Maeterlinck Songs. But in 2013, something wholly unexpected landed on their music stands: a chamber version of Bruckner’s Second Symphony arranged by the British composer of Elgar’s Third, Anthony Payne.

It was Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Royal Academy of Music principal and regular Gramophone contributor, who had approached Payne with the idea of making a Bruckner arrangement. As the arranger puts it in the booklet-notes accompanying the new CD that documents his Brucknerian handiwork, ‘I was stunned’. Payne, together with Freeman-Attwood and Trevor Pinnock, have today gathered together in the principal’s office at the RAM to talk through the pros, pitfalls and practicalities of reduced orchestration and small-scale Bruckner.

I open by stating that until I pressed the ‘play’ button on my CD player, I had absolutely no idea of what a chamber-ensemble remake of Bruckner might sound like. I ask Payne if, after he was buttonholed by Freeman-Attwood, a sound world suggested itself immediately to him? Or did he only discover how to solve the problem of small-scale Bruckner through the process of writing? ‘I was utterly poleaxed when Jonathan asked me,’ he says, ‘because I’m not especially a Brucknerian. I knew three or four of the symphonies well, but not the Second, and my realisation of how this might work dawned somewhere between the two extremes you suggest. I looked at the score for about an hour, and thought, well, the brass are present but are not as dramatically in the picture as in the later symphonies. I certainly couldn’t envisage this idea working for those later symphonies – not the Seventh, Eighth or Ninth; can you imagine! – but I could see how the Second might be made to work. And immediately I thought of the ensemble that eventually I used.’

‘If we were going to do a Bruckner symphony,’ Freeman-Attwood explains, ‘clearly it had to be the Second. We’d have come a cropper with the late symphonies simply because those layers of harmonic activity are more than the form can take, and the sheer variety of texture would have been an insurmountable problem. At this scale the structure of the Second was always going to be a challenge – its structure is no less ambitious than the First, and probably a little less ambitious than the Third – but the melodic language and harmonic resonances of the Second seem to me to be distilled from pre-Wagnerian sources. The First Symphony has its Tannhäuser moments and is generally Wagnerian, but the Second Symphony doesn’t have that. It’s Schubertian, more part of the Classical tradition.’

And so much about Bruckner interpretation rests in the realm of speculation that it is startling indeed to hear one of the composer’s symphonies arranged for chamber ensemble, Bruckner pinned down, each leg and muscle and note cell lying spreadeagle on an aural dissection table from where every harmonic twitch can be examined – all that Brucknerian bare bone without any of the orchestral flesh. Payne has retained just enough instrumental firepower to make the music function: a string sextet in place of a full string section, a single trumpet and trombone standing in for the full contingent of brass, with the woodwind section compacted down to flute, oboe and pairs of clarinets and bassoons. Every note the timpani plays in the orchestral version transfers over, and Payne’s salon orchestra is subliminally cushioned and bolstered by piano and harmonium.

Arrangements of the length and complexity of Stein’s Mahler Fourth – for an ensemble not dissimilar to Payne’s Bruckner set-up – were rare at the Society’s evenings. Smaller numbers of players, like the ensemble deployed for Berg’s arrangement of Strauss Jr’s Wine, Women and Song, which is paired with Bruckner’s symphony on the new disc, were more the norm. Arranging Bruckner’s piece, Freeman-Attwood says, ‘stretches the boundaries’, but all around us similar risks are being taken. Look elsewhere in this issue and you’ll find a review of Gilbert Kaplan and Rob Mathes’s chamber reduction of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, while the London-based Aurora Orchestra have made miniaturism a speciality of the house, commissioning the composer Iain Farrington to make arrangements of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Symphony No 1 and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, as well as music from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. I suppose this article is what they would call at music journalist college a ‘trend piece’.

‘Although this Bruckner arrangement doesn’t exactly fit with Schoenberg’s ideals of chamber arrangement,’ Freeman-Attwood asserts, ‘it does pose the same essential questions. What do you gain and what do you lose? Having something one’s ears are used to hearing on a vast scale pared down in these expert hands – what does that tell us about the music?’ One very specific gain in terms of Bruckner is that suddenly interpreters are liberated from those complex ruminations about which version of the Second Symphony to perform – 1872, 1873, 1876, 1877 or 1892. Payne based his arrangement around Robert Haas’s edition of the 1877 version, but Trevor Pinnock used the opportunity to imagine an idealised version with material collated from all the available sources.

‘Any idea that there is a “right” version is a completely wrong way of thinking,’ Pinnock says, pressing the point hard. ‘The Second Symphony was a perpetual work in progress which meant he might actually lose something valuable when he made cuts. But he’s making versions for different situations and as a musician this is very understandable, even if that might be less desirable to those who prefer to have everything neatly pigeonholed. To my amazement I found Bruckner’s own score online, and that discovery was the moment I began to find most out about the music. You find quite a number of the changes we’ve become accustomed to but there’s also a very fascinating central section, completely rewritten, of the slow movement with a violin solo that doesn’t appear in any published score.

‘Thinking about how to conduct Bruckner,’ Pinnock advises, ‘you must never forget that he was a great improviser. I feel he may have improvised lots of this material but then wanted to make sure that he could slot it into the Classical forms correctly, and you have this care about Classical form allied to tremendously forward-looking material, harmonically. The form was Bruckner’s “check” on himself. Some of the more advanced harmonies from earlier versions don’t feature in our performance because reintroducing that material would have upset the structural balance, especially in the last movement.’

During the second-edit stage of the recording process, Pinnock realised that he wasn’t happy with the pacing of the material in the finale; the structure was reordered which, Freeman-Attwood says, ‘transformed it and, actually, the small number of players and the flexibility of Tony’s arrangement made finding a clear and convincing pathway through the finale much easier’. ‘I wouldn’t necessarily take the same decision on cuts in another circumstance,’ Pinnock says. ‘For example, there were huge pauses in the first movement when Bruckner first wrote the symphony, which I think must have related to his improvising days in the wonderful acoustic of St Florian, but later he cut them by about half. Depending on the forces and the acoustic space available, I could well take different decisions in future performances and recordings, and I think this would have been very understandable to Bruckner.’

That the Second Symphony lends itself to such flexibility and debate is perhaps a good enough reason to big up the instrumental downsize idea, but now’s the time, I think, to throw a rider into the middle of this cosy consensus. Balancing timpani against a body of orchestral strings is fair game, but there’s no getting away from the acoustic reality that pitching timpani against a string sextet upsets the proportional instrumental weight inherent within classical ensembles. The timpani become foregrounded, a natural heavyweight now boxing clever against a medium-weight string section. How was that problem resolved? Does Payne even consider it to have been a problem?

‘When you look at my score, you see those big wind and timpani chords and it looks like a full orchestral score,’ he replies, ‘but that’s slightly misleading because you’ve only got single strings. But even so, I felt everything the timpani plays should be included in the chamber version, and I had to rely on my ear knowing that Trevor and the players would take care of it.’ ‘And, Tony, we had a wonderfully sensitive timpani player who made sure that it was never a problem,’ Pinnock chips in. ‘Part of my concern was the residual idea I had of the massive writing of Bruckner from the later symphonies and I couldn’t separate the association properly until we were in rehearsal and then I realised that, actually, this is fine.’

Jonathan Freeman-Attwood mentions that the wind and brass players also held back when necessary during rehearsal, rebalancing their natural orchestral instincts to accommodate the smaller string section. He sings the main theme of Bruckner’s Scherzo as it would normally be played by a symphony orchestra – long sustained notes, filled with air – and then imitates what he describes as the staccato ‘nutty’ quality of the same passage as performed in this chamber arrangement.

But, playing devil’s advocate, I say that for many listeners, orchestral mass and sustained notes filled with air is the whole point of Bruckner. ‘But equally,’ Freeman-Attwood retorts, ‘you might say that the intimacy of the strings lends the trio section of the Scherzo a Ländler quality that, ironically, sounds more like chamber music than Bruckner’s String Quintet which, to me, always sounds like a symphony in five parts.’ And, I suggest, the second subject group of the first movement becomes pure Schubert: nods all round.

‘Thinking about why people would make these sort of arrangements,’ Pinnock says, ‘your point about Schubert is a good one. We go back to a time when all sorts of arrangements were made. People learnt music by sitting down to play it, and it’s hard for us to imagine a time when there was no recorded music. But if you go through this process of reducing things to their essence, you begin to hear through the piece. You hear the structure; you begin to hear with very real clarity how important Schubert was to Bruckner. When we started the series with Mahler’s Fourth I was amazed at how this clarified the piece so that one saw through the structure. Mahler uses massive forces, but that piece lends itself well to arrangement because he splits the orchestra into chamber units.’

That said, the arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth noticeably loses instrumental momentum during the Scherzo, when the default use of a piano to pad out the textures feels defeatist: an admission that some aspects of Mahler’s orchestral music will forever be writ large. I like that in Payne’s Bruckner, the piano and harmonium shore up the ensemble while remaining essentially invisible. Pianos have little place within Mahler’s sound world, even less so in Bruckner’s.

‘The piano and harmonium fulfil a specific purpose,’ Payne explains. ‘If your ear hears a trumpet at the top of a chord and the rest of that chord is supplied by a harmonium, the illusion is created of three trumpet players.’ Pinnock suggests that the piano largely works with the bass line and has almost a continuo function ‘but sometimes in massively scored sections it doubles the first violins: you don’t hear the piano, but what you do hear is the first violin sufficiently strong’. ‘Yes, it gives violins a zing,’ Payne says, ‘and in the last few pages we really did need the piano to provide the ensemble with a middle. I’ve been working on arrangements quite a bit recently, but I’m not really what you’d call “an arranger” and I’m constantly amazed at what can be achieved.’

Pinnock needs to rehearse. Mahler and Zemlinsky are calling, and our time is drawing to a close. And with another reduced-score project about to come to fruition, I ask what the three men now know about Bruckner’s symphony that they didn’t know before. What has miniaturising Bruckner taught them? ‘That it’s bombproof,’ Freeman-Attwood concludes. ‘The spirit of the piece, that wonderful oxygenated quality in Bruckner’s writing, you can’t do anything to change that. And in the very best sense this is an up-to-date view of Bruckner, a composer who in my view has been owned for too long by dogmatic musicologists pinning their colours to either the Haas or Novak mast. You find musical solutions; and if that means that you take something from 1873 and add a bit from 1877, you do it.’

‘This symphony is not related to Wagner,’ Payne reflects, ‘but to the spirit of Renaissance polyphony.’ Pinnock concurs, adding: ‘I think it’s a very inner, personal piece and so it doesn’t fit well into the settled view people have of Bruckner and his loud musical statements.’

Personally, I hear the ideals of Schoenberg’s Private Performance Society coming full circle. When multiple versions of all the music you could ever want to hear are indeed but a mouse-click away, there’s a natural desire to rationalise this bewildering information-overload to an essence: to temporarily bypass the same old arguments about where Bernstein’s Mahler stands in relation to Karajan’s, or how 1873 measures against 1877, and instead focus on a way of saying something about the thing itself.

The Recording

Bruckner (arr Payne) Symphony No 2 

Royal Academy Soloists / Trevor Pinnock

(Linn Records)

'To say that clarity is a pay-off is rather to state the obvious, and the same goes for a sense of intimacy, but neither virtue would be desirable if the playing of the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble was less exceptional than it is, or the sound quality less present.' Read the full review

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