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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in Eb Major 'Romantic' (1886 ed. Nowak, aka 1878/80 version)
Philharmonia Zürich/Fabio Luisi
rec. 2018, Evangelische Kirchgemeinde Allstätten, Zürich

I respect conductor Fabio Luisi and have enjoyed much of his work, but the surprisingly thin, harsh sound of this new recording does his interpretation no favours, which, in any case, opens in a pedestrian manner, devoid of magic in atmosphere and phrasing. The strings are first drowned out by the blaring brass, then everything sounds distant and removed. Whether this reflects the sonics of the church recording venue, I cannot say; I can only advise that the engineers have not succeeded in creating the requisite, immediate ambience. Furthermore, Luisi’s tempi are oddly ponderous throughout; if we disregard Celibidache’s recordings as both hors concours and sui generis, this is the slowest performance in the catalogue but, unlike with Celi, its effect is anything but grand.

After a laboured opening, this mishap of a recording continues to be at best mostly workmanlike and uneventful throughout, but once the pizzicato section of the Andante begins, three minutes in, it almost goes to sleep, there is such a lack of inner tension in the playing and conducting. It loses this listener’s attention and unfortunately little which subsequently occurs regains it; the supposed climactic chorale is a complete non-event. The Scherzo is similarly slack, without the necessary contrast between the outer sections and the Trio. The Finale goes somewhat better, as Luisi generates more weight and momentum here, although it must again be said that often the brass overwhelms the rest of the orchestra and the effect is coarse. There is simply no sense of occasion about this reading and the etiolated pacing does not help. The great outburst almost exactly half way through the movement is strangely muted; its resurgence at 18’ is more animated and it is apparent that Luisi is attempting to grade and gauge their respective impacts, but again intensity sags and the movement peters out without much sense of grandeur. To check my response, I returned to two rather different recordings in Karajan (Haas) and Schaller (Nowak); both are thrilling by comparison, imbued with the sweep and mystery which completely evade Luisi.

I am sorry to say that this is by far the least satisfactory recording of this symphony in my experience and its inadequacy took me by surprise, as Luisi has proved himself to be a fine conductor in other fields, especially that of 19C opera; however, on this showing, I cannot think that Bruckner is his forte. Admirers of versions of the Fourth Symphony by such as Karajan, Tennstedt or, more recently, Schaller and Nelsons, will find no reason to switch loyalties.

Ralph Moore

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