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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Bruckner 4 – The 3 Versions
Symphony No 4 in E-flat major ‘Romantic’
First version composed 1874, revised 1875-1876 (ed. Korstvedt, 2021) [72:23]
Second version composed 1878- 1880, performed & revised 1881 (ed. Korstvedt, 2019) [68:59]
Third version prepared 1887, performed and revised 1888, published 1889 (ed. Korstvedt 2004) [68:03]
Earlier drafts and versions in direct comparison with the final published versions [65:01]
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jakub Hrůša
rec. November 2020, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg
ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC30533 [4 CDs: 274:09]

As it certainly was for me, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony has often been the gateway for tyros into the canon of Bruckner’s eleven symphonies. It is the most popular, the most recorded and also the most revised of his works and this new four CD set offers the three major versions of it in editions by Benjamin Korstvedt, including his newly prepared edition of the original score. The fourth disc presents the complete Volksfest finale and the finale as it was played in the second performance of the second version 1881, and 25 minutes of eventually discarded variants to illustrate how Bruckner’s earlier thoughts compare with the final published versions.

The catalogue predominately contains recordings of the Haas or Nowak editions of what is usually called the "1878/1880" version, although there have also to date been some seventeen recordings of the original version, including the first by Karl Wöss in 1975, Eliahu Inbal in 1977 and, in more recent years, those by Dennis Russell Davies, Kent Nagano, Simone Young and Daniel Harding; this new issue adds to that number. The third version, favoured and recorded most notably by Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch, has since been largely ignored for the last half century, yet as Korstvedt remarks in his notes, this was the version whereby the Fourth “successfully made its way into the musical world”, and whereas it was long assumed that the contributions of Ferdinand Löwe and probably the Schalk brothers to the substantial changes made by Bruckner were imposed on him, in 1996 Prof. Korstvedt’s scholarship convincingly demonstrated that in all probability he authorised and approved of them. Korstvedt’s notes – in German, English and French – provide a helpful guide to key points to listen out for in the development of the versions and gently build the case for regarding each progression as an improvement, especially if we remember that Bruckner was of course thinking in practical terms of what was playable by and appealing to the contemporary orchestra and audience respectively in live performance; our own perspective is radically altered by experiencing them via recordings, a medium obviously entirely irrelevant to Bruckner’s professed aim of creating a symphony which could be “easily grasped” and certain to “make its effect”.

As such, Korstvedt maintains that far from being confused, panicky responses to pressure, Bruckner regarded each of his series of revisions over fifteen years as an improvement and to be seen as “not only coherent but also reasonable, logical and often astute”. As a result, instead of this being merely a scholarly enterprise primarily of interest to academics and Bruckner completists, while we certainly do not have to surrender a preference for the second version in favour of the original or the final versions, these recordings provide a context whereby we may appreciate each stage of the symphony’s evolution and, using Korstvedt’s notes as a guide, make a personal and better-informed judgement of their relative success.

The second half of the notes contains a more general conversation with the conductor, in which the reasons for the appeal of Bruckner’s music to modern audiences are discussed; I like the observation that “Bruckner’s sumptuous symphonies need sumptuous spaces in order to become fully effective.”

All of which is intrinsically interesting and valuable but, in the end, the prospective purchaser needs to know if these performances stand comparison with the best extant recordings. From hearing Hrůša conduct the Philharmonia live, I know him to be a fine conductor and the fact that his tempi throughout are on the leisurely side is certainly for me no barrier to enjoying his approach to Bruckner- although he cites the influence of Celibidache in the earlier, less marmoreal stage of his career rather than his later performances in Munich – and he emphasises the importance of having an orchestra well-versed in the Brucknerian idiom; the Bamberg Symphony is surely that.

Brief, but helpful, listener’s guide-notes are provided for the snippets on CD 4, but by far the longest items there are the 1878 Volksfest finale and the previously unpublished and unrecorded abbreviated version of the finale which Bruckner prepared for the second performance of the Fourth Symphony, which was some five minutes longer than the Volksfest he had just completed and which it replaced. The Volksfest in turn, had been, simplified and abbreviated in comparison with its predecessor.

First impressions are dominated by the clarity, depth, beauty and balance of the sound but which is almost too vivid - the players are so closely miked that the upbeat of almost every phrase is preceded by the sniff of their intake of breath - and one also soon becomes thereby more aware of a certain fussiness and over-elaboration in Bruckner’s instrumentation and deployment of melodic ornamentation and counterpoint in the first version. Obviously the listener must guard against rejecting an idea simply because of its unfamiliarity but there are some decidedly bizarre passages interspersed with the familiar, such as that from 5:35 to 6:25 but the admixture of the known and the novel is never less than interesting and entertaining; even when it sounds over-worked, it remains a grand and noble concept. The Andante sounds grimmer and darker here; some of the eventually discarded ideas are, to borrow some apt words from the notes, “even a bit uncanny”, but its conclusion is majestic. Bruckner’s substitution of the Scherzo here by the celebrated “Hunt” of the second version is likely to be thought the least regrettable of his changes, as the rugged original is a simpler affair and one of Bruckner’s weaker inventions, but Hrůša derives the maximum impetus out of the frenetic outer sections and keeps the Trio moving, too, in order to disguise its fragmented nature. He is assisted by the fact that in the 1876 revision, Bruckner removed the pauses which gave the Scherzo a rather halting nature. The finale opens arrestingly with some very modern-sounding, chromatic downward slides against shrieking flutes and pounding, martial double basses where the virtuosity of the Bambergers comes to the fore. The music might be cruder and more disjointed than what succeeded it, but there are some really arresting moments, such as the whirling string passages from five minutes in, which sound as if they could have been lifted from Tapiola. The concerted brass fanfares are titanic in their impact.

Hrůša’s grip on the shape and structure of the music is utterly secure; never once throughout this set do I feel that he is less than wholly in command. He does not aim for the gentle, fairy-tale atmosphere conjured up by Nagano in his account; this is a grander affair and has more in common with Simone Young’s similarly epic, driven recording. He generates tremendous impetus and dynamism in the magnificent coda, ending thrillingly. The score of this first version is given the best possible advocacy here, even if I cannot regret the improvements Bruckner subsequently made.

We are back on more familiar ground on the second CD with the recording of the second version, with the new finale Bruckner worked on both before and after the symphony’s premiere to replace the Volksfest and is the one which has been heard in performance since the 1930’s – but which Bruckner himself never heard. I was going to observe that the competition here was toughest but we must recall that, as I mention above, Knappertsbusch made a studio recording and both he and Furtwängler left live recordings of the final version – but of course in far inferior sound. Nonetheless, Hrůša is up against classic versions by Böhm, Karajan, Tennstedt and, to name two personal favourites, Shimono and Suitner.

There is no doubt that this is a thoroughly confident and rewarding delivery of the symphony, again enhanced by the excellence of the sound engineering. This version is clearly a tighter, neater ship than the first with a wider range of moods; Hrůša finds the mystery, the gravitas, but also the rustic joy and bucolic calm in Bruckner’s music. A special word of praise must be found for the principal horn and his three companions, who produce flawless tone and intonation with nary a blip to be heard – but the whole orchestra plays like people possessed. There is a reassuring warmth to the cellos’ playing of the Andante’s opening theme and Hrůša makes judicious use of carefully graded dynamics and well-judged pauses, showing himself to be a natural Brucknerian. If I was expecting to hear any deficiency in the power or tonal depth of this orchestra just because it isn’t the BPO or the VPO, I was soon disabused of any such prejudice. The richness of the lower strings and the precision of the pizzicato accompaniment beguile the ear so consistently as to vindicate Hrůša’s quite daringly slow speeds in central sections, yet he gradually ramps up tension beautifully from around twelve and a half minutes in to culminate in a massively grand chorale at 13:53, only to dwindle magically.

The “Hunting Scherzo” is one of the most purely joyous and exhilarating movements in all Bruckner’s symphonies: ten minutes of sheer delight. It is given a perfect realisation here; the power and weight of the timpani and trumpets are tellingly contrasted with the charm of the lilting Trio waltz, played with great delicacy. The insistent pace of the opening of the finale is instantly redolent of menace and mystery and Hrůša maintains that promise by sustaining tension throughout what is a long movement at nearly twenty-three minutes. The conclusion is stupendous; it is clear that Hrůša has learned from the manner of Karajan, one of the conductors whom he says influenced him, even if he cannot quite achieve the same level of tension and exaltation in the closing bars. Hrůša relates an anecdote which reflects my own feeling about Bruckner’s music when it is played as I wish to hear and is true if these recordings: “Herbert Blomstedt recently told me about an experience in Asia. After a concert, a lady came up to him and said it was a pity that Bruckner’s symphonies were so short. Blomstedt was overjoyed…”

The 1888 version is less radically different from the second version than the first, in that its form is principally the result of some altered tempi and expression marks, reorchestration and cuts, and some formal changes, mainly in the third movement the finale. That results in a punchier, more streamlined form but also a tempering of the monolithic nature of the symphony. The same virtues manifest in the performances of the two preceding symphonies inform this one and the allure of this version is enhanced by the advantages of pellucid digital sound, especially as we are used to hearing it in vintage recordings. With the help of Prof. Korstvedt’s notes, the broader differences are easily detectible by the general listener, such as the diminuendo before the Trio instead of the forte climax, now saved for the conclusion of the movement, and the cut to the subsequent Scherzo restatement, but subtler changes to the score are harder to detect. The finale evinces the greatest number of alterations: as the notes point out, the hushed, mysterious, developmental passage beginning at 14:02 and segueing directly into the Gesangsthema at 16:02 is very effective; another major change is that the restatement of the unison theme is delayed until the coda; again, it works, although I find the conclusion to be a little lacking in tension compared with that of the previous second version, where the growl of the timpani and violas is more menacing.

Listening to a performance this fine, I find that I enjoy Bruckner’s final thoughts virtually as much as I do the second version, although ultimately it is apparent that a certain numinous quality has been sacrificed to immediacy.

The final disc contains comparative illustrations of the changes – indeed, almost invariably improvements – made by Bruckner, making them easily appreciated by the listener who is not comparing scores. As well as enhancing the orchestration, Bruckner also made some appropriate cuts, as per the excision of some twenty bars (track 8) in the Andante which I suspect was well-judged, as was Bruckner’s progression towards finding the best way to effect the transition to the reprise of the second theme group, as illustrated in tracks 12-14. By far the best recording of the 1878 Volksfest finale to date has been Gerd Schaller’s in William Carragan’s edition but this newly edited version by Korstvedt clearly stands alongside it. The abbreviated version of the finale as it was played for the second performance will probably not strike the listener as preferable to what we now hear but it is nonetheless interesting to hear it.

Nothing about the recordings of the first and third versions here shakes my allegiance to the second as my preferred incarnation of the Fourth Symphony but I am equally persuaded that you could not look for better advocacy of their attractions than we encounter in this splendid set.

Ralph Moore

This review reproduced here by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal

Please note that we have subsequently been alerted to an error in the initial pressing of CD 3, containing the 1888 version, and also the download of it: at around 2:45, there is a two-second gap, as two bars are missing where the horn call theme is played after the big cymbal crash. A new CD has been pressed and the corrected version will shortly be available. The new timing of the corrected CD is 22:19.

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