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Bruckner sym4 PH22010
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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major "Romantic" (1st version 1874 – ed. Schaller)
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live 25 July 2021, Ebrach Abbey, Franconia, Germany
PROFIL PH22010 [73:24]

This co-production with BR Klassik is part of Gerd Schaller’s ongoing Bruckner2024 project celebrating the bicentenary of the composer’s birth by recording all the versions of his symphonies he authorised and presents Bruckner’s original conception of the Fourth Symphony.

I recently welcomed Jakub Hrůša’s set presenting all three versions of the Fourth; Schaller’s latest release adds to the growing body of recordings of its first incarnation and, as always, is performed and recorded to the highest standard.

Schaller has of course already given us very successful accounts of the 1878/80 versions, both with and without the Volksfest final; those are available separately or as part of his box sets of the complete symphonies and I refer you to my reviews of those recordings. In his note to this new issue, Schaller sums up the justification – if such be needed – for performing and recording it when he writes, “If one is familiar with the commonly played version of 1878/80, one soon gains the impression that the 1874 version is for long stretches a completely different work. And so it is.” He goes on to comment on the brusqueness and modernity of the writing, something I alluded to in my review Hrůša’s recording when I remarked of the original that “there are some decidedly bizarre passages interspersed with the familiar…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.” Schaller brings out this “experimental” nature of the original, its unprecedented – indeed subsequently unequalled - “rhythmic complexity” and its debt to Beethoven. Ultimately, as his confidence increased, Bruckner began to see himself, as Beethoven’s true successor and eventually his public and most of the music establishment came to agree with him.

There is an ever-increasing groundswell of opinion among Bruckner aficionados that Bruckner’s first thoughts were his best and Schaller even goes so far as to assert this is his favourite version of the Fourth Symphony. While we are under no obligation to accept such a view, if Schaller’s brilliant advocacy of it here does not persuade us to share his opinion, then nothing will.

The clarity of sound apparent in the first monitory horn call over the muttering string tremolo is almost startling; the sound engineers have now had long experience in getting the right balance in the Ebrach Abteikirche and this recording is a sonic triumph: grand, resonant, yet also detailed and forensic – every layer of the instrumental panoply is apparent to the listener’s ear. There is a kind of confidence and elation in this music-making, a momentum which is wholly convincing and which can only proceed from a situation whereby a convocation of musicians is inspired by a sense of common purpose. Schaller’s customary attention to dynamics and nuanced phrasing are much in evidence and the way he builds tension through the last four minutes of the movement from the brass chorale blast announced at 16:15 to the climactic conclusion is a master class in controlled, delayed gratification; this has all the ecstatic release which only a live performance can provide.

The Andante is the longest movement here, encompassing a wider, darker and more complex range of musical ideas and emotions than are present in its eventual revision and the virtuosity of the Philharmonie Festiva comes to the fore. Just as in the first movement, the slow, steady, stately build-up to the climax of the movement is perfectly gauged - an inexorable progress towards a titanic conclusion, the timpani thundering underneath the pulsing strings and declamatory brass – all the more effective for the way in which Bruckner suddenly truncates the movement with a little dotted horn motif.

Unlike Hrůša, Schaller retains the pauses between the varied horn calls in the Scherzo which is dramatically more effective in the broader acoustic of the Abbey than in the concert hall, and the Trio, too, sounds more spacious here - yet, in so many ways, Schaller makes the listener hear this familiar music afresh, imparting more drive and excitement to it than I have previously encountered in rival versions; the conclusion is once more properly climactic – a feature true of every movement in this recording of the symphony.

The octave drops from the brass in unison and the ostinato quintuplet scales give the finale a special, obsessive quality which Schaller exploits to the full; it is in those passage that we hear most distinctly how indebted Bruckner was to Wagner in the flickering passages reminiscent of Loge and the Magic Fire Music and once again we may appreciate the adroitness of Schaller’s orchestra in their execution. I love the way Bruckner plays with his listeners by providing false endings to the movement on several occasions before regathering and re-launching; each time, Schaller and his brass play them for real to consolidate that impression, but then go on to apply dynamics, pauses and rubato judiciously to enable a regrouping. The real coda, beginning at 16:03 is simply massive, a juggernaut rolling imperiously towards an apotheosis of sound gratefully enhanced by the generous acoustic of the abbey.

As much as I enjoy Hrůša’s traversal of the versions of this symphony, Schaller’s account here of the 1874 version is a warmer, more personal – indeed “Romantic” - experience, more redolent of the sheer joy of music-making, whereas Hrůša gives us a grander, cooler Fourth. This goes to the very top of my recommendations for recordings of this symphony – at least in this version if not overall, regardless of edition.

Ralph Moore

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