Günter Wand is one of the great Bruckner interpreters,
whose death earlier this year marked the end of an era. This reissue
of his 1976 recording of the Fourth Symphony with his Cologne orchestra
is most welcome, so too the new recording with the North German orchestra,
which turned out to be his last.
The latter performance comes as part of an advantageously
priced 2 CD set, coupled with the Fifth Symphony of Schubert and an
extended interview with the German musicologist Wolfgang Seifert. This
is well documented in the excellent accompanying booklet, which includes
a full transcript and translation, so that the non-German speaking listener
is not entirely at a disadvantage.
The RCA catalogue now boasts no fewer than three Bruckner
Fourths conducted by Günter Wand: the two present examples from
1976 and 2001, and another recorded in the Philharmonie with the Berlin
Philharmonic in 1998 (09026 68839 2). It is no criticism, but rather
a confirmation of Wand's Brucknerian credentials, that the three performances
are more notable for their similarities than their differences. It is
interesting to note a gradual broadening of tempi, making the performances
extend from 64 minutes (1976) to 68 (1998) and then 73 (2001). These
are small differences from one to the next but they are not insignificant.
The fact remains that when one listens to any of these
performances, the music moves inexorably on its symphonic path, and
sounds as though it could not possibly be otherwise. Yet the statistics
prove otherwise, that as he grew older Wand loved the music more and
more, that he wanted to expose more detail with greater breadth of tempi
and phrasing. It's not as simple as that, of course, but it remains
Take the famous scherzo, for example. The most exciting
rendition of this rhythmic tour-de-force is probably the earliest version,
with tight ensemble and a slightly more rapid tempo accentuating the
stresses. Added to which the tendency of the remastered recording to
a certain dryness, which makes the tuttis sound crisper, emphasises
But what is a positive in the quickest music is less
so generally, when the pulse is slower. For in this competitive company
the 1976 sound is less pleasing than the later versions, even if taken
on its own merits the performance is perfectly good. But there is more
bloom to the string sound in Hamburg in 2001, or come to that, in Berlin
in 1998. And these things matter in Bruckner, for here the composer
creates some of his most resonant and sonorous textures. In the slow
movement the fluent lines and subtleties of phrasing are treated with
consummate understanding by Wand, in whichever version. In fact no one
better articulates the ebb and flow of a Bruckner symphonic movement.
And the great sonorous climax near the close unfolds with certainty
and grandeur in each performance.
Wand always preferred the Haas edition of this symphony,
eschewing the original scherzo and slow movement, and it is somewhat
misleading of the two recordings listed above to simply call this 'original
version 1874-80'. It is decidedly not that, otherwise we would have
a completely different scherzo, for example, and not the celebrated
one with all the hunting horn effects.
Whatever the merits of the inner movements of this
marvellous symphony, it is in the first movement and the finale that
any interpretation will stand or fall. Wand is second to no-one in understanding
the way that the line must be maintained, while at the same time the
music must breathe and build naturally to its powerfully climactic statements,
the greatest of them the last, when the first movement theme is recalled
(in typical fashion) to set the seal upon the whole. While the differences
between these versions are not enormous, the better recorded sound makes
the final version (Wand's last ever recording) the one to recommend.
There is also a second disc, including a delightfully
fluid performance of Schubert's Fifth Symphony, as well as the extended
interview with the conductor. If the two CD format does not appeal,
the single disc with the Berlin Philharmonic finds Günter Wand
on top form, and directing an orchestra of the highest calibre. For
the Bruckner collector this is a surfeit of riches indeed.