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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (Nowak edition, 1880)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. 4-7 April 2006, Studio of Netherlands Radio, Hilversum
Hybrid SACD
EXTON OVCL 00248 [71:36]

Dutch orchestras and conductors have long been associated with the great German masters, including Bruckner and Mahler. And this tradition is alive and well, of which this fine new recording offers ample proof. The broadcasting orchestras of Holland have maintained an enviable quality throughout the post-war era, and principal conductor Jaap van Zweden certainly brings the best from his players in this idiomatic performance of Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony, which has perhaps become the master’s best-loved work. 

The spacious first movement sets the tone and scale for the whole. The atmospheric beginning has a special quality, an E flat tonality which is very similar to that of the opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold. A solo horn, surrounded by tremolando strings, suggests the work's title, Romantic, and perhaps was the reason for its acquisition. The horn playing here is exemplary, at once confident, accurate and warm-toned. Perhaps the acoustic of the Hilversum studio might have offered greater atmosphere, after the manner of the monastery of St Florian where Bruckner worked, but it is still perfectly satisfactory. This horn-call turns into the movement's central theme; and it will, moreover, conclude the whole symphony. Therefore it is imperative that the conductor sets an appropriate tone, balance and tempo. ‘Lively, but not too fast’, says Bruckner, and van Zweden sets a pulse that fits this description, while allowing the majesty of the dynamic range to make its mark. Full marks can also be awarded to the recording in this regard, since when music builds towards the first massive, powerful tutti, the effect is undeniably impressive.

The ensuing dialogues between woodwinds and strings in flowing lyrical music, the latter known as the gesangperiod (song-period), are played poetically with a nicely judged phrase structure. If there is a criticism, both here and throughout the symphony, it is that the violin tone is on the hard side, and other versions have achieved a more sensitive range of string sound. Among these the recordings of Gunter Wand are personal favourites, including his last recording of all, made with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra for RCA (74321 93041 2 - see review). 

The Andante opens with an eloquent cello cantilena, whose whispering violin postlude is the perfect foil. But the restrained, meditative chorale and the beautiful melody, introduced by the violas, might have found just a little more poetry on the new recording. On the other hand, there is a truly magnificent, epic climax towards the close. 

The Symphony No. 4 was composed in 1874, but in 1878 and 1880 Bruckner revised it, replacing the original scherzo and completely reworking the finale. The work thus created received a successful premiere under Hans Richter in Vienna, on 20 February 1881. The chief reason for its initial success was the new scherzo movement, one of the most directly appealing examples of Bruckner's art. Van Zweden and his players respond to the atmospheric orchestration and the stirring horn fanfares, with their hunting allusions. The music builds to a powerful and exciting climax, which is balanced by a lyrical trio of magical calm. 

The finale resumes the more purposeful agenda of the first movement, and van Zweden’s opening bars reinforce the point. Out of the quiet opening a huge, massive climax is generated, while again there is lyrical music to provide the balance of contrast. But the question of the violin tone has not gone away. The final phase, replete with full orchestral sonority, sounds magnificent, although a more ample acoustic would be more indulgent still. Despite these few misgivings, however, this remains a fine performance, sympathetically recorded. 

Terry Barfoot




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