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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (Romantic), WAB 104 (original version, 1874) [67.19]
Bruckner Orchestra, Linz/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. live concert, Brucknerhaus Linz, Austria, September 2003
BMG ARTE NOVA 82876-60488-2 [67.19]

 

 

When you think about it, it's odd that we've had to wait so long to hear Bruckner's popular Romantic Symphony as he first wrote it. (see footnote) Differences in minor details between editions of the symphonies suffice to spawn reams of critical and scholarly exegesis. Despite all this conductors apparently deemed the original score of  the Romantic unworthy of consideration. Even its publication as part of the Leopold Nowak edition had no avail . Since the "revisions" amount to a wholesale rewrite, this original version holds interest not merely for clichéd academic reasons - "an insight into the composer's creative process" and so forth - but as a satisfying symphonic construction in its own right.

Predictably, some changes are clearly intended to correct poorly-judged balances, as at bar 413 in the first movement, where two unison flutes playing the theme simply can't hold their own against the variegated brass activity. Elsewhere we find the composer changing the sound and the sense of other passages that work perfectly well as they stand, clarifying textures, groping towards his distinctive, mature style.

The first movement sounds recognizable enough to begin with. Before long, however, small differences from the later version - a filled-in woodwind harmony here, some fresh counterpoint there - cumulatively contribute to the creation of an unfamiliar sound-world. The additional activity gives the movement a fluid contour very different from the stark, granitic edges of its final form. The more or less continuous flow reminded me of César Franck's symphony. Among the few passages that didn't survive the revisions, a spacious string chorale, introducing the development, is striking.

At the start of the second movement, the string accompaniment, sparse yet clearly rhythmic in the revision, sounds markedly busier here, especially as Dennis Russell Davies interprets the Andante, quasi allegretto designation - identical to that in the later version - rather briskly. The agitated undercurrent this adds to the suggested march rhythm pervades this movement, not even letting up at the close as it normally would. Beginning at bar 191, an open,  widely-spaced texture, most uncharacteristic of this composer, provokes an eerie anticipation.

Next comes a standard-issue one-in-a-bar Scherzo similar to Bruckner's others, rushing string figures and all, though the soft, peremptory horn fanfare that launches it hints at the bracing "hunting horn" movement to come. The Trio sounds like simplicity itself, though the nervous edge of light violin tremolos belies the theme's bucolic serenity.

We occasionally hear familiar motifs in the Finale, but they are developed in unfamiliar ways: this movement, too, would be substantially rewritten. It's easier to assimilate the structure of this earlier form, because of the immediately recognizable, ear-catching motifs, but it misses the irresistible surge that emerges in the best performances of the revision.

Dennis Russell Davies has been indulging his intrepid side in the recording studio: first the Hans Rott E major Symphony for the CPO label, and now this. He sets judicious tempi - save perhaps for the brisk Andante previously cited - and keeps things moving in good order, a few questionable agogics aside, while characterizing the individual episodes. Under his direction, the Linz orchestra makes a rich, cushioned tutti sound that never loses definition. The oboes tend to dominate the woodwind choir, producing an appropriate organlike color. The warm, well-balanced horns, on the other hand, are too frequently homogenized into textural filler where they should cut a stronger profile. The sound makes a suitably full-bodied impact, though the opening soft tremolos are lost in the ambience - wasn't digital recording supposed to cure this? A touch of congestion invades the Finale's first climax.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Footnote

I realize that this review of the Davies recording of the 1874 edition of Bruckner's Fourth appeared several years ago but I just stumbled on it today (July09), and was surprised to see the line "When you think about it, it's odd that we've had to wait so long to hear Bruckner's popular Romantic Symphony as he first wrote it. "

In fact, of course, we didn't have to wait so long: by the time this review appeared in April 2006 (indeed, even before the recording was made in 2003), the 1874 version of the Fourth Symphony had already been recorded by Woess (31 years before the review), Inbal (a quarter of a century or so before the review--a much admired recording, reissued often), Lopez-Cobos, Rozhdestvensky... And, of course, there have been lots of recordings since then.

I realize that none of us can know all the recordings out there, but this is not simply a matter of missing some obscure corners of the discography. It's a serious distortion of history.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Contributing Editor, Fanfare

 

 



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