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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat Romantic (Nowak edition, 1878-80 version)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Rec. October 1992, Philharmonie, Berlin
WARNER ELATUS 2564 60663-2 [68.25]


Daniel Barenboim is an experienced Bruckner conductor and it shows. His judgement in the balancing of orchestral sections is always effective and sometimes penetrating in its observation of detail. For example, the lyrical gesangperiode of the first movement of the Symphony No. 4 can seldom have been articulated with more loving care and attention, yet there remains a feeling of the utmost spontaneity.

As a Bruckner acoustic the Philharmonie in Berlin has been captured inconsistently over the years, but for the most part it sounds well here, so all praise to the recording team. The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is majestic, sure of tone and with suitable observation of detail. There is also a subtle treatment of dynamics, which is an important issue as regards this music. These matters should not be taken for granted, and of course owe something to the recording too. Both the pianissimo playing and the full-toned climaxes are compelling in their different ways.

In Bruckner, capturing exactly the right sound counts for so much; more than might be the case with other composers. Phrases demand the chance to breathe, and the string sound needs to expand resonantly while allowing for the subtleties of the contrapuntal textures to make their point. That is why this performance communicates so well, even though some of the climaxes, such as at the centre of the finale, do feel just a little strained and congested. The other caveat concerns the string tone, which does not always sound as warm as it might.

From the very first bar of the first movement, one senses that the music is moving inexorably on its symphonic path, and everything sounds as though it could not possibly be otherwise. Barenboim’s tempi are on the broad side, given that his performance is so far over the hour mark. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and the music always sounds right as far as its development and evolution are concerned.

The famous scherzo is particularly exciting, a true rhythmic tour-de-force, with tight ensemble and detailed stresses.

Barenboim chooses the Nowak edition of the commonly played 1878-80 score, but he also includes the highly dubious cymbal clash at the peak of the first climax of the finale. It makes its mark well enough, but was it written by Bruckner?

Whatever the merits of the inner movements of this marvellous symphony, it is in the first movement and the finale that any interpretation will stand or fall. Barenboim is a most experienced Bruckner conductor and this 1992 recording followed his previous version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, made more than a decade earlier. That too showed the way that the line of the music has to be maintained, while at the same time allowing the music to breathe and build naturally to its climactic statements.

Surely Bruckner intended that the greatest of the climaxes should be the last, when the first movement theme is recalled (in typical fashion) in order to set the seal upon the whole remarkable conception. It is a mark of Barenboim’s success that when the symphony reaches this concluding statement it sounds absolutely final.

Terry Barfoot

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