> Hruckner Symphony 4 Macal 5749422 [TD]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.4 in E Flat "Romantic" (1874) (Nowak edition)
Hallé Orchestra/Zdenek Mácal
(Recorded in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, April 1984.)
Classics for Pleasure 5 74942 2 [67.58]


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Zdenek Mácal made a number of recordings for the Classics for Pleasure bargain label in the early 1980s. You may know his recording of Dvorakís "New World" Symphony with the London Philharmonic complete with first movement exposition repeat that many, myself included, consider one of the best ever made; quite an achievement in a work so well known and recorded. His CFP recordings coincided with the advent of digital recording too so he was well served by the engineers. This recording of Brucknerís Fourth wasnít in the catalogue long and, unlike the Dvorak, has never appeared on CD before, so itís good to be able to get to know it again. For many this will probably be a first acquaintance. It was made in the then home of the Hallé Orchestra, the now demolished Free Trade Hall in Manchester, and those who heard the Hallé at that time, as I often did, will find the sound of both orchestra and hall bring back some fond memories.

The orchestra was in pretty good shape under Principal Conductor Stanislav Skrowaczewski. In then circumstances Mácal couldnít have been much better served had he recorded the Bruckner in London though I do think the recording would have sounded different and that would have been a pity. For example, we would have missed the very distinctive no-nonsense brass sound thatís so well reproduced by engineer Mike Clements (aka Mr. Bear). You might even say that this is Bruckner with a Manchester accent: honest, straightforward and without frills or fancy baggage. The brass section, for example, is not at all the smooth and cultured underpinning chorus they so frequently are in Bruckner recordings from Vienna, Amsterdam or Berlin. Rather the Hallé produces a sound that seems as though itís rough hewn out of dark Pennine stone, flinty and weather-beaten. This is encouraged further by the recording balance that favours the brass over the strings, but not, I must stress, to an extent that I found obtrusive. In fact I found that it only added to my enjoyment of the performance, gave it a lot of its character and appeal. Especially when added to Mácalís reading of the score that I will deal with below. I certainly can think of Brucknerians who will dislike this sound, indeed the whole "tone of voice", that this recording gives of Brucknerís sound world. But I would advise the curious to take the plunge and buy it. At this bargain price you wonít be much out of pocket and you will gain a different perspective on a work that you thought you knew.

Mácalís interpretation suits the sound that his orchestra and engineers produce perfectly. In the first movement we are certainly in those Pennine peaks so itís probably Salford rather than Salzburg you can see through the mists and rains. The whiff of fish and chip shops in your nostrils rather than schnitzel kitchens. Mácal seems particularly keen to stress the wide contrasts in the musical landscape from the depths of the valleys to the sharpest heaven-storming peaks. He does this through a careful mapping of the symphonic argument I found reminiscent of Klemperer whose EMI recording should also be on the shelves of concerned Brucknerites, and an ability to make each widely contrasting passage never appear detached from what is to come and what has just gone. In the second movement he realises the elegiac nature of much of the music and pays attention to the Andante marking as well as any of the better-known interpreters. The main climax later on in the movement is a genuine resolution but with the thread never lost.

That distinctive North of England brass delivers real gritty character in the Scherzo but the Trio has a nice line in meandering charm. Then we are into the fourth movement, often a problem for Bruckner where his inspiration can falter. Robert Simpson maintained that the fourth movement of this work is let down by the secondary theme that emerges a few minutes in. He even went so far as to describe it as a "crackjaw platitude" that was trivial rather than naïve. The implication being that in Bruckner the latter is acceptable where the former isnít. I disagree and find the theme both trivial and naïve in equal measure and what Bruckner does with it through the movement rather convincing. True, the last movement of the Fourth is still not the equal of that in the Fifth. There are a few passages where inexperience haunts but Bruckner has come a long way in this department since the Third. Mácal seems to agree too and presents the offending theme honestly and without artifice and in that he helps the movement work to a degree that is not really clear until the very end and you have the chance to look back on it as a whole. At the very end Mácal and his orchestra are superb in the way they build up the coda. This is a point at which Brucknerís inspirational fires really do burst into life to round off the whole work in a deeply satisfying way and here the Hallé brass section roars out in triumph.

I suspect long takes were used at these recording sessions and, if so, the impression of being at a "live" performance that this produces only enhances my enjoyment of this very distinctive and thoroughly recommendable version. At this price it comes into direct competition with Georg Tintner on Naxos (8.554128). They are two profoundly different interpretations. Tintner is grander and more atmospheric. His tempi are more spacious also. But Mácal has more drama and though his orchestra sounds less opulent and mellow than Tintnerís this does, as I have tried to outline, carry gains. Try to hear both versions, but I wouldnít be surprised if you ended up preferring Mácal.

Bruckner with a Manchester accent and none the worse for that.

Tony Duggan

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