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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, revised version ed. Nowak (1880)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 26-28 November 2008, Philharmonie, Munich,
BR KLASSIK 900187 [72:10]

This is a live performance by Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony, which has probably become the master’s best-loved work. It was recorded 2008 but appears only now, in the hope perhaps of suggesting that this is a new issue. Or perhaps it is that Mariss Janson, the orchestra’s principal conductor since 2003, died last December, and this issue might be regarded as an in memoriam tribute. The small print in the accompanying booklet does state that this performance comes November 2008. The information about Jansons’s passing appears in the biography located towards the end of the booklet.

In 2008, Jansons was principal conductor of two great orchestras, not only the Munich-based BRSO but the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. Earlier that year, his live recording of the Fourth Symphony was made in Amsterdam in SACD surround sound, coupled in a two-disc set with the 1889 edition of the Third Symphony. That set, issued in 2009, was well received by the critics, and is still in the catalogue. While the sound quality of the newly issued Bavarian performance is perfectly acceptable, it is not as impressive as the Amsterdam SACD version.

In Munich, as in either version, Mariss Jansons conducts a spacious first movement which sets the tone and scale for the whole symphony. The opening bars have a wonderfully atmospheric quality. They establish an E flat tonality which is very similar to that of the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, a work that Bruckner knew and loved. It is the introductory role of the solo horn, surrounded as it is by tremolando strings, that suggests the work’s title Romantic. The playing of the Bavarian orchestra is exemplary, at once confident, accurate and warm-toned, while the acoustic is ample enough to suggest that of the monastery of St Florian where Bruckner worked and was trained. Jansons’s spacious tempo allows the music to expand in an appropriate way, but in some quiet passages the pulse becomes very slow indeed. ‘Lively, but not too fast’, said Bruckner, but this performance stretches the point. As in virtually all recordings, Jansons’s performance reaches a most impressive conclusion at the end of the first movement, building to a peroration that is at once sonically satisfying and deeply logical.

The second movement has an eloquent cello cantilena, whose whispering violin postlude proves the perfect foil. Most conductors, including Jansons, are at the slower end of the tempo spectrum in this movement whose full description is Andante quasi allegretto. The restrained chorale meditation and the beautiful viola melody related to it have abundant poetry here, and at the slowish tempo the magnificent, epic climax which falls towards the close is richly sonorous and satisfying.

The Symphony was composed in 1874, but in 1878 and 1880 Bruckner revised it, replacing the original scherzo and completely reworking the finale. The work thus created received a successful premiere under Hans Richter in Vienna, on 20th February 1881. It is not hard to imagine that the chief reason for its success on that occasion was the new scherzo movement, one of the most directly appealing examples of Bruckner’s art. Jansons and the Bavarians respond to the atmospheric orchestration and the thrilling horn fanfares, with their hunting allusions. The performance builds to a powerful and exciting climax, which is balanced by a lyrical trio of quite magical calm.

Jansons uses the Nowak edition of the score. The finale resumes the more purposeful agenda of the first movement, while at twenty minutes plus it is constructed on the large scale. Out of the restrained opening, a huge and massive climax is generated. This first climax is magnificent. This performance includes a contentious cymbal clash which Bruckner may or may not have intended. It was a survival from the first printed edition of the symphony, though not called for in the Nowak score. Jansons shares some illustrious company in making this choice, since – among others – Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Eugen Jochum and Klaus Tennstedt choose to do likewise. That said, in this recording the cymbals are not as dramatic in their impact as they might have been. To follow the magnificent opening phase, there is the lyrical music of the Gesangperiode (song period) to provide the balance of contrast, and Jansons shapes it the utmost sensitivity. The final phase of the symphony develops with full orchestral sonority, and sounds suitably impressive.

While this Bavarian performance is not as dramatic as some, and does not outshine the Amsterdam performance that Jansons also made in 2008, it remains an impressive testament by one of the great conductors of recent times.

Terry Barfoot

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