My colleague Patrick
Waller has kindly reminded me that back in 2004 the journalist
Lebrecht issued one of his periodic Cassandra-like warnings
about the parlous state of the classical recording industry.
Towards the end
of his piece, writing with typical restraint, he commented:
“I shall miss the industry when it is gone …. I shall particularly
regret the loss of comparability, our future inability to concretise
Simon Rattle’s never-to-be-recorded Bruckner Fourth in the context
of past masters.” Well, not only has the recording industry
stubbornly refused to heed its own death knell, as sounded by
Mr. Lebrecht, but it has now produced that “never-to-be-recorded”
Rattle performance of that very symphony.
It’s not Rattle’s
first excursion into Bruckner. I think I’m right in saying that
he’s played the Ninth Symphony in concert and back in 1996 he
made a recording of the Seventh Symphony for EMI with the CBSO
(EMI 556425 2 – now deleted). I didn’t hear that recording,
though if memory serves me correctly it was not as warmly received
by the critics as were many of his other recordings from his
Birmingham era. Now with his Berlin orchestra he’s made a live
recording of the Fourth, possibly Bruckner’s most popular symphony.
To be honest I find
myself in two minds about this recording. It has much in its
favour. For one thing the playing is superb: the strings have
the warmth and richness that you’d expect from this source;
the woodwind are eloquent and the brass golden and commanding.
Also the recorded sound is very good. And though I have some
reservations about Rattle’s interpretation what is presented
here sounded to me to have the feel of a genuine performance
– I couldn’t detect any audible evidence of takes spliced together
- and the audience is commendably silent. Having commended the
quality of the recording, however, I should warn that the dynamic
range is extremely wide. Even when listening through headphones
I found some of the pianissimo passages were very quiet
indeed – and I know from personal experience at CBSO concerts
that this is an effect that Rattle is perfectly capable of achieving
without any help from the engineers – but be wary of adjusting
the volume or the tuttis will frighten the horses.
Having said all
that, there are aspects of the interpretation that unsettled
me. In fairness these tended to concern short isolated stretches
of music but these occurrences did make me wonder if Rattle
yet sees the music in long paragraphs, a quality which is vital
to achieve success in Bruckner. One such instance crops up in
the first movement. The opening is most atmospheric, with a
glorious horn solo. The rustic second subject is also handled
quite well. Then at 8:35 it’s as if Rattle gets a rush of blood
to the head. For the next minute – to 9:39 – the pace he sets
is hectic. I assume he’s aiming to generate excitement in the
lead up to the climax that follows but I fear that more heat
than light is generated. My yardstick recording is Karl Böhm’s
1973 Vienna Philharmonic version (Decca), also using the Nowak
edition, and in this same passage Böhm is significantly more
controlled yet there’s no shortage of energy or excitement.
Rattle’s impetuosity here is a great shame for it mars what
is otherwise a good account of the first movement. At 12:30,
where the horn theme returns, decorated by the flute counter
melody, the hushed playing is outstanding. This is a wonderful
passage and Rattle and his superb players do it full justice.
Then the build up to the final peroration is done very well,
though I feel that Böhm reveals even more grandeur.
The second movement
is beautifully moulded by Rattle, who is aided by some super-fine
playing from the BPO. I did wonder, however, if the moulding
wasn’t just a little too beautiful. On its own terms
the performance sounds convincing yet there’s an interesting
contrast with Böhm, whose pacing is just a fraction swifter
– he takes 15:28 for the movement against Rattle’s 16:38. Böhm
just seems a little more natural in this music and you feel
he’s taken a bit more notice of the last two words in Bruckner’s
tempo marking of Andante quasi allegretto. However, no
one could fail to be impressed by Rattle’s dynamic control in
this movement, which culminates in a majestic climax at 14:29.
If one is happy with the pacing – and the difference between
Rattle and Böhm is not that great – then Rattle offers a good
and consistent account of the movement.
The hunting horn
material in the scherzo is delivered magnificently. The music
bounds along vivaciously and the BPO brass articulate superbly.
I do feel, however, that the ländler trio is a bit on
the leisurely side – in this section Böhm makes the music flow
more easily at a slightly faster pace and in his hands the music
sounds closer to Schubert.
The finale begins
very impressively. Rattle builds up to the triumphant reminiscence
of the first movement’s horn motif very successfully, demonstrating
vision and patience. For much of the time during this movement
he leads the listener along very persuasively. There’s a reflective
passage between 7:41 and 8:45 and here I wondered if he was
loving and moulding the music just a bit too much for comfort.
But, as in the first movement there’s a brief, disfiguring passage
and I fear it strikes me as a serious lapse of taste. For just
a few seconds at 10:12 Rattle gets the strings to dig into the
music as if, for all the world, they’re playing Mahler’s Ninth.
Not only that but these bars are taken at an incongruously slow
speed. The effect is, frankly, grotesque and most un-Brucknerian.
Later on, before the coda, I wrote in my listening notes “does
finale really hang together?” I’m not entirely persuaded that
it does, though this is a view that I may well modify – or confirm
– with further listening. The build-up to the end (from 20:46)
is full of suspense and is very well realised. The symphony
concludes in a triumphant blaze and I felt that the last bars
were more of a release than usual – a comment that is definitely
meant as a compliment.
So, as I said, there’s
a good deal to commend this recording but there are reservations
too. This is the first time that I’ve heard Rattle in Bruckner
and my overall reaction is that his Bruckner is “work in progress”.
I wonder how often he’d performed this symphony prior to these
concerts; perhaps the piece needs to gestate and settle in his
mind a bit more? In some ways I wish he’d waited a few years
before making this recording for the combination of his great
gifts as a conductor and the fabulous orchestra at his disposal
could produce a very fine recording of the Bruckner Fourth.
We’re not quite there yet, though.