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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (version 1878/80 edited Nowak) [66.07]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, 6-8 December 2013, Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh.

Having reviewed the mightily impressive first two releases in the ‘Pittsburgh Live!’ series I wondered how this third and latest disc would measure up. Enjoying every second of this captivating performance I can report that the series continues to provide an elevated standard of performance and sound.

More than any other Bruckner symphony his Symphony No. 4 known as the Romantic and written in 1874 has been given wholesale revisions at various times. Here Manfred Honeck uses the version of 1878/1880, edited by Leopold Nowak. It's the one given at the premiŤre in 1881 under Hans Richter a version described by composer and musicologist Robert Simpson as “clean and lean”.

In the booklet notes Honeck talks about the programmatic content of the Fourth Symphony as Bruckner described it to his friend Viktor Christ. He explains how he believes the Fourth Symphony “is almost a tone-poem in the robe of a symphony”. Rather than strictly follow the score Honeck believes that “Bruckner’s musical phrases and thoughts require their own flexible tempi and expressions, particularly when referring to nature and folklore.” This all amounts to Honeck making a number of slight alterations mainly concerned with emphasis and balance. There's also the occasional addition all done in a manner that other conductors surely do but probably don’t write about.

In the opening movement the sheer force of the symphonic power generated by the Pittsburgh players is compelling and nearly pins the listener to back of his seat. It's not all about raw energy, though. We also encounter outstanding subtlety in the contrasting episodes of nature music. Impressive too is how the orchestra builds and sustains its crescendos. The slow movement harbours a satisfying calmness bordering on serenity to which Honeck seamlessly develops a tension-laden undertow. The great climax is accomplished magnificently without it feeling forced. Tuned to perfection the Pittsburgh brass section in the Scherzo rings out to stunning effect; I doubt the heavily engaged trumpets and horns have ever sounded better. Remarkable playing too in the Finale with Honeck adding a sense of mystery and foreboding. Sure-footed through Bruckner’s changes of mood the work culminates in a quite magnificent climax of a grandeur that sends a shiver down the spine. Impeccably paced and carefully shaped Honeck creates a magnificently inspiring Bruckner interpretation. Decisive and highly spirited the textures feel ideally layered with the Pittsburgh players also displaying a natural feeling for orchestral colour.

In the Fourth Symphony my benchmark recording is the 1998 live Berlin account from GŁnter Wand with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Using the original 1878/1880 version published by Robert Haas (1936), Wand’s interpretation is both visionary and magnetic. All the components are handled with the utmost care and control based on decades of experience. It’s good to have another excellent recording available and this live performance from Honeck with his Pittsburgh players can confidently stand close to Wand.

Recorded by Soundmirror at live concerts at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh this hybrid SACD played on my standard player has moderately warm, clear sound that reveals ample detail and achieves a satisfactory balance. There is little extraneous audience noise to worry about and the applause at the conclusion has been taken out. Manfred Honeck has written a wonderfully informative essay which is well worth reading. With the Pittsburgh Orchestra giving such a penetrating reading under the inspirational Honeck, Bruckner’s music is remarkably well served.
Michael Cookson