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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 Romantic in E flat major (version 1878/80 edited Leopold Nowak) [62:56]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. 3-5 September 2009, Alte Oper Frankfurt, Germany.
RCA 88875 131242 [62:56]

This is the fourth volume of RCA’s Bruckner symphony cycle with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. It has been preceded by numbers 5, 7 and 9 and just recently joined by the Sixth.

This is the familiar second version of the Fourth from 1878–80, still the one most often heard in performance; this despite a few recent recordings of the first version making that one increasingly better known. However Paavo Järvi states in the booklet “I combine some details of the various editions in pursuit … of the optimal version”. He does not state what all these details are, but they certainly include a rather startling cymbal crash near the start of the finale (2:32 in). It must be frustrating for the current generation of distinguished Bruckner scholars to work so tirelessly to establish authoritative texts of a version, only for the old practice of a conductor assembling his own version to persist; Skrowaczewski does it too.

How long does it take to play Bruckner 4? Robert Haas in the preface to his edition of the score of this 1878-80 version states “Duration: approx. 1 hour”. Haas’s edition appeared in 1936, and when Volkmar Andreae recorded his distinguished cycle with the Vienna Symphony in 1953, the Fourth took 60:29. Otto Klemperer, despite his slow-coach reputation, took 60:58 live in Munich and 61:01 for his London recording. Even in the mid-1980s another old-school Brucknerian, Heinz Rögner, took just 58:17 with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. So perhaps there used to be a consensus about this timing, but there have always been exceptions, and Bruckner symphonies generally seem to have got slower. Thus such famous versions as Böhm on Decca with the VPO in 1974 (68:10) and Karajan on EMI in 1971 (70:00) took a much more leisurely view. Succeeding generations have followed suit – Simon Rattle with the BPO in 2007 took 71:19. I am sure you can guess who gets the trophy for lethargy. Yes, it’s Celibidache in Munich in 1988 needing 79:11. While it is true that Bruckner marks both outer movements and the trio with the injunction “nicht zu schnell” (not too quick) he might have reconsidered things if he had known that these words could help produce a twenty minute difference between the shortest and longest performances.

All this is by way of preamble to the significant observations which Paavo Järvi makes in his booklet note for this new recording. Järvi explains that he perceives the symphony as being lighter and sunnier than the other Bruckner symphonies, even calling it pastoral in character. He writes, somewhat provocatively, “I deliberately try to stay clear of the so-called “traditional” approach, avoiding the typical monumental, heavy and pseudo-religious-kitsch.” That is well said — unless you are a devotee of Celibidache or others of the 70+ minute school. The point seems to me to be that his performance, at 62:56 has in fact gone back towards a once traditional approach, from which the ‘monumental’ view — his so-called 'traditional' approach — can be seen as an aberration. The remark in the Gramophone review of this disc that “the result involves slightly faster tempi than usual” is true only in relation to that ‘so-called traditional approach’ therefore. It is Järvi’s tempi here that were once ‘usual’.

Whatever your tempi preference for Bruckner, it is difficult to imagine any reasonably open-minded listener failing to enjoy this Jårvi performance. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony is a fine group and sound idiomatic throughout, with weighty brass, flexible strings and alert woodwind giving voice to Järvi’s pastoral and romantic vision. The conductor writes that the “Romantic” subtitle that Bruckner gave the work should be taken seriously, and for him it even links back to the first generation of romantic composers such as Berlioz and Schumann, His account has something of their questing spirit but he nonetheless offers the powerful rhetorical manner that Bruckner requires and a persuasive unfolding of the symphonic narrative. The horns are as splendid as they must be in this work, but so too are other sections, such as the violas in their long lyrical lines in the andante. The scherzo has plenty of bucolic bustle, and the finale, once one is past that intrusive cymbal crash, grows compellingly towards a sublime coda. At no point did the conductor’s tempi bother me, even though I learned the work from those Böhm and Karajan discs of more than forty years ago. Järvi seems able to have it both ways – always flowing without sounding rushed, achieving grandeur without any undue broadening at climaxes.

He is not quite alone in this view of the work among newer versions, as Janowski’s Suisse Romande SACD recording on Pentatone takes only half a minute more. His swifter finale (18:46 to Järvi’s 21:10) could even be preferred as making a more convincing case for the most structurally problematic of the Fourth's four movements. Another recent Fourth that has been widely acclaimed is the SACD from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. It's on a spectacular Reference Recording disc. His 66:07 will give comfort to those who feel Bruckner just needs a bit more time to make his full effect.

Do try to hear Järvi before you make up your mind on the matter. His fine performance is well served by a good recording, one with excellent clarity, as shown the well-focused timpani which reveal some crucial details in that instrument’s important role. However, having launched this series with SACDs of symphonies 7 and 9, RCA seems to have issued this disc only as a stereo CD, at least in Europe. There is an SACD mastering credited in the booklet, and that can be imported from Japan it seems – at a price. RCA did the same with the later stages of David Zinman’s Mahler cycle that when complete was boxed as a set of stereo CDs only. If you must have surround sound – and it really does benefit Bruckner symphonies – then Janowski and Honeck - as well as Blomstedt on MDG with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra no less - all provide very satisfying listening. This Frankfurt version is always refreshing, often inspiring, and a worthy addition to an impressive series.

Roy Westbrook



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