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Bruckner sym4 PH22010
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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major ‘Romantic’
(Original version 1874 – edited Gerd Schaller)
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live, 25 July 2021, Ebrach Abbey, Franconia, Germany
PROFIL PH22010 [73:24]

In this new Profil recording Gerd Schaller and his Philharmonie Festiva have once again turned their attention to Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony ‘Romantic’. On this occasion, Schaller has chosen the original 1874 version, recorded live in concert in Ebrach Abbey, Franconia.

It is often publishers who add nicknames or titles to works but the description ‘Romantic’ was appended to the Fourth by Bruckner himself. At one point, to accompany the score Bruckner provided a programme or scenario of a Romantic tale of mediaeval knights, although he later withdrew it.

As a perfectionist, he repeatedly looked to improve his symphonies and heavily revised some of them; there are also numerous examples of conductors cutting parts of the scores for their performances. He was very mindful of the views of friends and associates who considered the Fourth to be too bold, complex, and progressive for audience taste; the Fourth, more than any other Bruckner symphony, has been subject to numerous alterations and rewrites, including a replacement Scherzo and a reworked and trimmed down Finale, and has been recorded in a number of different versions and editions.

The majority of recordings fall into one of two main versions: that of 1881 (aka 1878/80), edited by Robert Haas (1936) has been favoured by leading conductors Barenboim, early Böhm, Celibidache, Haitink, Karajan, early Klemperer, Tennstedt, Thielemann and Wand. The other version is the 1886 (aka 1878/80) edited by Leopold Nowak (1953) and chosen by conductors Abbado, late Böhm, Jochum, late Klemperer, Kubelik, Solti, Sinopoli, Jansons and Rattle.

The original, 1874 version of the Fourth was edited by Leopold Nowak in 1975, and was given its premiere under the baton of Kurt Wöss at the Linz Brucknerfest in 1975. A few conductors have since taken up its cause, with recordings from Eliahu Inbal (1982), Michael Gielen (1994), Dennis Russell Davies (2005), and Kent Nagano, Roger Norrington and Simone Young, all in 2007.

Gerd Schaller, as part of his Bruckner series on Profil, has already recorded the Fourth Symphony using the 1878/1880 version edited by Leopold Nowak and also the 1878/1880 version (with Volksfest finale of 1878) edited by William Carragan/Leopold Nowak. For this recording, Schaller has concentrated on Bruckner’s own, original manuscript of 1874 from which he has prepared his own performing edition which he conducts here. Without question, Schaller and his Philharmonie Festiva make a strong case for that original score and given the expansive quality of the work, everything holds together quite splendidly. My main observation concerns the original Scherzo, a movement of a turbulent character, that I believe relates better to the remaining three movements. It did take some time to warm to the original Scherzo, which is not surprising as one can become so accustomed to hearing the replacement movement (the so-called ‘Hunting Scherzo’) that Bruckner wrote in 1878/80 and is firmly established in the revised versions.

In Schaller’s hands, the opening movement Allegro evokes to me the distant panoramas of Austrian alpine ranges that were so familiar to Bruckner. Especially rewarding is how Schaller and his players create an abiding sense of grandeur and elation. The expressive range and heroic qualities in the writing remind me of the German Romantic era composers Wagner and Schumann. In the passage points 9:59-11:16, the aching beauty of the remarkable chorale-like passage is notable. It seems that Bruckner once wrote that the Andante quasi allegretto was a ‘song, prayer, serenade’ which is a fitting description of the movement. The sense of a ‘veiled funeral march’ used by musicologist Robert Simpson is not a description I especially relate to. A bleak and lonely passage from the solo horn seems to capture a sense of the deep introspection of the movement together with an undertow of melancholy.

Opening with a horn call to which the orchestra responds, the Scherzo is characterised by fluctuating moods with further horn calls answered by the orchestra. As an advocate of Bruckner’s original thoughts throughout his symphonies, I acknowledge the qualities of this original Scherzo, which is edgier in conception than the rewritten version. Although Bruckner later subjected the Finale to considerable revision, including reducing its length, this original Finale is still on a majestic scale. This is music of vigour and resilience and I like the way Bruckner metaphorically takes the listener daringly to the edge of a cliff before resetting. In Schaller’s hands, this is a stirring performance; he ensures that the orchestral climaxes make a resounding impact. Containing much glorious music in Bruckner’s distinctive soundworld, this final movement could easily serve as a standalone tone-poem.

This 1874 score presents considerable rhythmic, dynamic and technical challenges but Schaller prospers here, ensuring that the playing is as unified as possible; only in the more ferocious and demanding episodes of the final climax is there some unevenness. There is an impressive forward momentum and vitality in Schaller’s reading throughout Bruckner’s frequently changing landscape. Schaller’s approach demonstrates composure in Bruckner’s melodic lines, providing an unwavering pulse and ensuring that the music has an ample generosity and a gratifying the level of lyrical warmth. Of all the versions of the Fourth, this 1874 original is Schaller’s personal favourite, as it is mine.

This is a live recording of the concert given in July 2021 at Ebrach Abbey, the former Cistercian monastery in Franconia, Bavaria. The audio engineers excel, providing satisfying quality of clarity and balance, together with a very slight echo in the Abbey which does not bother me at all. There is very little extraneous noise to worry about and audience applause has been removed.

Of all the recordings of the Fourth Symphony I have accumulated, there are several I find convincing, nevertheless, if I had to choose a single recording, it would be the live, 1998 Berlin account from Günter Wand with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He uses the 1881 (aka 1878/80) edited by Haas and I experience Wand’s interpretation as having a special, compelling quality. In addition, Wand’s live, 2001 Philharmonie, Munich interpretation with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra is very similar in approach and also of elevated quality. According to music writer Wolfgang Seifert, the version of 1881 (aka 1878/80) was the only version of the Fourth that maestro Wand conducted.

Bruckner admirers will surely find this original version of the Fourth Symphony conducted by Gerd Schaller hard to resist. The hand-picked players of the Philharmonie Festiva perform impressively for him and the recording benefits from satisfying sound. Those new to this original version are in for a treat and I suggest that this recording will fit nicely alongside favourite recordings of the two main versions.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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