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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat Romantic (1880 version ed. Haas) [64:11]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. April 1975, Philharmonie, Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 5006 [64:11]

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What are the features that make this performance so extraordinary?

At a fairly superficial level, anyone can hear – and revel in – Karajan’s exceptional control of textures, from the rarefied mountain heights of his pianissimos to the heaven-shaking splendour of his resounding brass climaxes. Equally clear is his masterly control of dynamics, so that crescendos grow and grow till they get where they are heading. Fortissimo is not reached before time, nor does he hold back to let fly at the last moment. As this is the Haas edition there is no cymbal clash in the slow movement, but with Karajan we need no such cheap device to tell us where the climax of the movement is.

All this would be remarkable in itself, but I think there is something else which differentiates Karajan’s Bruckner from that of other conductors.

The basic approaches to Bruckner are several, and they all derive from the fact that the works are very long and can seem unduly sprawling. First, there is the classical method, that of Horenstein – though he did not record this particular symphony – and, though less systematically than you might expect, Klemperer. With this method, the listener is somehow aware of an all-pervasive, regular beat, holding the music back when it seems to want to run ahead, keeping it firm when it apparently cries out for romantic reflection. Thus a sort of rhythmic scaffolding is erected which isn’t really in the score and it props the music up in spite of itself. Of course the best exponents of this method also take care of phrasing and textures, and it remains the most likely way for a conductor who is a good craftsman unblessed with genius.

At the opposite extreme these is the romantic approach of Furtwängler and his disciple Jochum. These conductors characterized each moment to the full, regardless of the tempo changes this involved, and relied on their sense of drama to hold the symphony together. The former conductor was invariably successful, the latter certainly was in this symphony. Incidentally, the Furtwängler recording – a live performance – is to be regarded with caution in view of the strange edition used. The scherzo is made to finish pianissimo! So far as I am aware, nobody conducts Bruckner like this today and probably nobody could.

Somewhat more pragmatically, conductors such as Walter, Schuricht, Böhm and Wand seem to have felt that, if you make it all as beautiful as possible, people won’t notice the length.

Readers might amuse themselves by placing the many conductors I haven’t mentioned in one category or another, but Karajan doesn’t really belong in any of them. Superficially, he might seem to belong in the first, since he does not rely on tempo manipulation for his effects, but straight away we find that he doesn’t belong here at all since we don’t get that impression of a steady, all-pervasive beat. In fact, it is all so smooth and seamless that we don’t really feel any beat, the music is suspended in time, or borne on air. Perhaps this latter phrase gives us a clue, since one of Karajan’s extra-musical passions was flying aircraft and Bruckner’s Alpine world, viewed from a height of several thousand feet, stretches out motionless, sublime in its peaks and troughs, while the aeroplane moves across it as imperceptibly as Karajan seem to traverse the score.

It is a phenomenal conception, with the downside that under Karajan, Bruckner’s mountains seem completely shorn of any human population. Here is nature pure and raw. The brass in the scherzo ricochet off the mountain sides rather as Tennyson’s “long light shakes across the lakes/And the wild cataract leaps in glory”. But if you want flesh and blood huntsmen, or if you want rustic peasants in the dance sections, you must look elsewhere.

What it amounts to is that, if this particular view of Bruckner appeals to you, and in certain moods it appeals to me very much indeed, it would be impossible to imagine it better done. Even if you prefer more human drama, or a leisurely stroll round old-world Austria, you should try to hear Karajan too. General critical consensus has always placed Klemperer (EMI) and Böhm (Decca) at the summit of the Bruckner 4 discography. The Kempe volume in the “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” series contained a performance of this symphony which, I suggested in my review, might in time come to join them. But I couldn’t place Karajan below these three.



Christopher Howell 



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