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CD: Crotchet

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat (Romantic) (1874) [78:20]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. data not given

Experience Classicsonline

Dal Segno proffers neither the dates nor the venue for this recording, as if to imply that it's recent. But I suspect this is a licensing of a Denon recording (C37-7126) of the mid-1980s, in which case Dal Segno needn't have been so coy, given Denon's reputation for superior engineering. And, while I've not heard the original issue of this performance, the sound here is certainly impressive: clean and present, and focused in the bass. The brass choir comes across with impact and depth in tutti - the trumpets' bright edge adding brilliance and variety to the otherwise homogeneous sonority - yet there's plenty of room around the lighter textures.
What may surprise people is the way Blomstedt's performance, first and foremost, moves, in keeping with the authentic Central European Bruckner tradition, as documented in monaural recordings and concert airchecks by Böhm, Knappertsbusch, and even Fürtwängler. Among all the historical performances I've heard, only the slightly later Celibidache conforms to the stereotype of a stodgy, glacial manner in Bruckner. Blomstedt plays the music with an almost Italianate flow and direction, without sacrificing the needed sense of space.
Within this mobile framework, Blomstedt's handling of small musical units shows how they generate long-term coherence - the rhythmic motif of the symphony's first tutti, two quarter-notes followed by three triplets, evidently serves as the unifying motto for the entire score, returning in the Scherzo's main theme as well as in the Finale's various thematic and secondary fanfares. The conductor also brings out the neglected expressive potential in other details, coloring the string sonority warmly at 3:21 in the first movement, underlining the horn's low pedal-point in the Andante so it registers as a reflection of the theme. Given this level of care, it's odd that Blomstedt allows some softer phrases and units to get buried. The horn "answering" the reeds at 12:35 of the first movement doesn't cut through, and neither do the trombone "answers" at 17:12 (pianissimo doesn't mean inaudible!); the violins lack character and presence in general when playing softly, though there's no problem at louder levels.
The first movement, as suggested earlier, is flowing and spacious; the woodwinds' clean attack giving their statement of the theme a cool Nordic feel. The springy tutti, though sufficiently weighted, feels lighter than usual, and there's a nice searching quality, and a hushed anticipation, when the theme returns at 7:02. The slow movement maintains a similar flow - the marking, after all, is Andante quasi allegretto - with the sombre pizzicato basses at 0:47 suggesting the "funeral march" atmosphere. The cellos at the start are vibrant and cantabile; the violas, in their featured passage at 3:16, are equally warm and more translucent. Another clean woodwind attack, on the downward phrase at 5:38, evokes an appropriate organlike effect. The theme sounds more mournful when it returns at 8:20, with its woodwind commentary, than the first time around.
The unbuttoned Scherzo strikes a buoyant note, maintained not only in the airborne hunting-horn calls, but in the "in-one" quality of passages that traditionally relax, such as that at 0:31. The Trio is phrased simply and serenely, though as it proceeds, the strings, as in most other performances, tend to creep ahead nervously.
Ensemble in the finale is less alert than in the preceding movements, perhaps reflecting the last of a fatiguing set of sessions: the landing at 2:18 isn't exactly together, and the edges of the recurring unison tuttis are slightly but noticeably blunted. Still, few accounts match Blomstedt's fleet, affirmative performance of this movement in projecting it in a single, inexorable line. The trim bass quarter notes at the start immediately establish an anticipatory mood; the second subject, at 2:59, is warm and gently striding; the tutti at 5:23, and those that follow, are martial and ominous rather than, as in most renderings, portentous. I liked the cheerful bustle of the passage at 16:55, but the tempo seems marginally too fast for this level of busyness.
Blomstedt does score, however, in one of this movement's trickiest moments: the third theme's chorale recap, allotted first to brasses, then to strings. On many recordings, the strings' attempt to match the sound of overblowing brass sounds unintentionally comical. That the theme arrives organically from the preceding passages, at 8:27, is notable enough; the conductor balances his full-throated brasses carefully, and has the strings attack with a blooming resonance that affords them a comparable tonal presence - nicely done.
Despite its popular-sounding nickname, the Romantic has proved elusive on disc, and the analog accounts that have held up best over the long haul, may be hard to find on CD. Böhm's Vienna studio recording (Decca) remains unique in its balance of expressiveness and austerity. Barenboim's first account (DG), originally conceived as a one-off rather than the launch of a cycle, is weighty and affectionate, with the Chicago brass in resplendent form. Bruno Walter's early-stereo version (Sony/CBS) sings sweetly in the lyrical pages without shortchanging rugged strength in the brassy climaxes. Blomstedt's isn't, perhaps, on this exalted level, but it surely ranks just below those three recordings, and, with its first-rate sound, it's a useful and pleasing supplement.
Stephen Francis Vasta 

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