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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 ‘Romantic’ WAB 104 (version 1878/80 edited Leopold Nowak, 1953) [68.21]
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live 22/23 September 2015 Philharmonie, Munich, Germany

Now that Valery Gergiev has officially taken up his post with the Münchner Philharmoniker a number of recordings on the orchestra’s own label are appearing. This release of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was recorded in September 2015 during performances celebrating the inauguration of Valery Gergiev as the orchestra’s new music director. A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance of Mahler Symphony No. 4 by the Münchner Philharmoniker under Gergiev at the Philharmonie, Munich and was delighted to hear this orchestra in such magnificent form.

Known as the ‘Romantic’, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was written in 1874 and revised a number of times through 1888. One of the composer’s most performed and recorded symphonies, the Fourth is the only one to which he appended a title. It was with interest that I read that maestro Manfred Honeck stated that he believed that the Fourth Symphony was “almost a tone-poem in the robe of a symphony.” More than any other of Bruckner’s works the Fourth has been subject to wholesale revisions at various times and appears in various editions (almost a subject in itself!). Here the Münchner Philharmoniker under Valery Gergiev performs the version of 1878/80 edited by Leopold Nowak in 1953.

In the opening movement the sheer force and intensity of symphonic power generated by the Munich players is compelling, nearly pinning me back in my seat. But this interpretation from Gergiev is not all about raw energy; also outstanding is the subtlety afforded to the contrasting episodes of nature music. I’ve never felt this work was all about spirituality, rather more like a tone poem, and here it feels like an evocation of dawn breaking with episodes full of pastoral charm. Also outstanding is how the orchestra effectively builds and sustains Bruckner’s remarkable crescendos. Infused in the slow movement, with its distinct nocturnal atmosphere, which on the surface has a satisfying calmness bordering on serenity, Gergiev develops a tension-laden undertow. The great climax is accomplished magnificently without any sense of undue force. Tuned to perfection, the heavily engaged Munich brass section in the Scherzo rings out to stunning effect; as excellent as I have heard in this work. Striking playing too is apparent in the Finale, with Gergiev, as in the finest versions, adding a sense of mystery and foreboding to the intense writing. Highly assured through Bruckner’s changes of mood, the work culminates with a quite awesome climax of a grandeur that sends a shiver down the spine. Crucially, throughout Gergiev’s pacing feels convincing, combined with the unshakable proficiency, focus and vitality displayed by the players.

Recorded during live performances at the Philharmonie, Munich the engineering team have excelled providing satisfying sound being especially clear and well balanced. Contained in the booklet is an informative essay titled ‘Free from all impurity’ by Thomas Leibnitz.

Maestro Gergiev and his Münchner Philharmoniker are in excellent form creating a glorious sound with this compelling account of the Fourth Symphony however there are several recordings in the catalogue deserving of special praise. My benchmark recording is the live 1998 Berlin account from Günter Wand with the Berliner Philharmoniker on RCA Red Seal. Wand uses the 1878/1880 version published by Robert Haas (1936) which according to music writer Wolfgang Seifert was the only version of the work the maestro ever conducted. I find Wand’s interpretation both visionary and magnetic in its effect. All the components are handled with the utmost care and control by Wand, based on decades of experience. Wand’s live 2001 Philharmonie, Munich interpretation with the Münchner Philharmoniker is very similar and is of high quality. Worthy of admiration too, is the 2013 Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh recording performed by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck on Profil. Using the 1878/80 version edited by Leopold Nowak this is the same version which according to Honeck was used at the première of the work in February 1881. Impeccably paced and carefully shaped, Honeck has created a magnificently inspiring Bruckner interpretation with glorious sound. Decisive and highly spirited, the textures feel ideally layered with the Pittsburgh Orchestra displaying a natural feeling for orchestral colour on Reference Recordings.

With the Münchner Philharmoniker supplying such an outstanding performance under Valery Gergiev, Bruckner’s music is remarkably well served.
Michael Cookson



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