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Len Mullenger:

Symphony No.4 in E Flat Major "Romantic"

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Eloquence 469 642-2 [63.40]

Daniel Barenboim's Bruckner cycle for DG came near the start of his career away from the piano. It boasted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but never quite made it into the pantheon of "must have" Bruckner recordings due to an inability to really penetrate to the core of these works. Mainly, I suspect, because he was still feeling his way with them. If only he had struck a viewpoint more like his great idol Furtwangler, I always used to think. In more recent times he has certainly improved greatly as a Brucknerian. His recent First Symphony on Telarc is one of the best Bruckner recordings on the market but on the evidence of this 1973 Fourth Symphony there was still some way to go. There is no doubting his command of the orchestra in this recording, however. The first movement is vigorous and closely argued. Too vigorous in the final analysis, I think, because missing is the crucial reflective mind-set that comes out of the slumberous growth etched through this composer's music like the rings seen in a tree after its trunk has been felled. This is especially apparent in the strangely elegiac slow movement that is here a clear presentation of the score but no more than that. There is much more here and in a few years Barenboim will be able to deliver it. The Scherzo is rather too fast so it's a good thing Barenboim has the precision of the Chicago players to back him up, the brass especially. However, in the last movement I felt their contribution finally becomes more hindrance than help.

The brass section of this orchestra seems to have two modes of playing in their repertoire: soft and very loud and never miss the opportunity to prove just how loudly they can play given half a chance and then, once that's achieved, to play even louder. It gets tiring after a time and I found I was bracing myself as each onslaught approached which is quite the wrong impression. I'm equally sure this machine-tooled brass sound was not what Bruckner had in his mind when he composed. Something with more mellowness and shape is appropriate, surely. The analogue recording does us no favours either. Though remastered for this issue it still has about it DG house style of the time with a wide dynamic range, a "glassy" top and the feeling you are in a sterile environment rather than a concert hall which takes away so much of the character of Bruckner's sound.

At this low price the competition is with the Naxos version (8.554128) conducted by Georg Tintner. The extra ten minutes he takes over the work seems to encapsulate the difference between the approach of a good Bruckner conductor and a great one.


Tony Duggan

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