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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline


Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 “Romantische” in E flat major, Original Version (1874)
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. ‘live’, 1-3 December 2007, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg

Experience Classicsonline

This is the third instalment of Simone Young’s Bruckner cycle in which, so far at least, she is using original versions of the scores. Gary Higginson reviewed her recording of the Third Symphony and last year I welcomed her account of the Second. I had some difficulties in appraising this latest release but that is nothing to do with the quality of the performance or the recording, both of which are excellent. The difficulty concerns the text. In the case of the Second Symphony the differences between the original score, recorded by Miss Young, and the later, revised versions that are more familiar to collectors boiled down, in essence, to some cuts and a reordering of the two middle movements. In the case of the Fourth, however, what we have is something infinitely more challenging.

Bruckner’s first version of his Fourth Symphony was finished in 1874 but there are later versions of the score. Bruckner revised the work between 1878 and 1880 and this 1878/80 version formed the basis for the edition by Robert Haas, which is perhaps the most commonly heard edition nowadays.  Leopold Nowak’s subsequent edition is based on the 1886 revision: Simon Rattle is among the conductors who have recorded Nowak’s edition (see review).  In the booklet note Michael Lewin mentions another revision, from 1880, but I’m not aware of any recordings of that text. The 1874 version has been recorded at least once, by Eliahu Inbal. Patrick Waller made passing, favourable reference to that recording in our 2005 survey of Bruckner symphony recordings but I haven’t heard it and this is my first encounter with the original version of the score.

Like me, I suspect that most Bruckner collectors will know the piece primarily through the 1878/80 score – I don’t believe that the differences between that edition and Nowak’s edition of the 1886 text are, on the surface at least, all that marked. Frankly, I was amazed at how great are the differences between the 1874 and 1878/80 texts.  In summary the music that you’ll hear on this CD contains much of the thematic material that we are accustomed to hearing but in this first version Bruckner presents that material in a very different and often more elaborate guise. Even if I were qualified so to do, readers would not want to read paragraphs of detailed explanation of the textural differences and in any case, lacking a score of the original version of the Fourth, I’m simply not equipped to provide such a comparison. You may legitimately wonder if the notes don’t contain an adequate explanation. Up to a point they do. Unfortunately, Michael Lewin’s essay is scholarly and detailed but, at least as translated, it’s a hard read and it rather relies upon the reader having to hand a copy of Nowak’s edition of the score.

So my comments are going to be more general and I think the best thing to say is that seasoned Brucknerians will find this a fascinating listen but the more general collector should approach with a degree of caution simply because they won’t be acquiring a performance of one of Bruckner’s most popular symphonies in its familiar guise.

The first movement is simply marked Allegro – by 1879/80 this has changed to Bewegt, nicht zu schnell – and it’s interesting to observe that Miss Young isn’t afraid to take the tempo marking literally and to push the music forward in a red-blooded but convincing way. At the opening of this movement we hear thematic material that’s familiar from the 1878/80 score. However, pretty soon (from around 2:20) Bruckner’s treatment and development of the material takes us into unfamiliar territory. The accompanying orchestral detail, for example, is often more elaborate, even ornate, than is the case in 1878/80. Arguably the 1878/80 score is more taut and well organised but there’s a good case to be made that much of what we hear in this earlier version is very interesting, especially when played with the conviction of this performance.

There’s some material between 5:30 and 6:24 that was completely excised from the revision; it’s quite dark and grave. As the movement unfolds we hear quite a bit more music that was cut completely in 1878/80. What’s especially fascinating is how passages that sound familiar – or nearly so – from the 1878/80 version come and go – for example the music between 13:45 and 14:26 largely survived into the revised score. From 18:44 the build up to the last climax resembles the corresponding section in the 1878/80 score but the music here doesn’t sound as assured or grand – and the loud passage that immediately precedes it sounds to me a little as if Bruckner was rather feeling his way at this point. The ending is not as exciting as Bruckner later made it and in particular the final bars do not feature the great opening horn theme sung out proudly by the horn section in unison and supported by pillar-like chords from the rest of the orchestra. The revision of these bars alone in 1878/80 was a massive improvement on the 1874 first thoughts.

The second movement also opens with the theme that we recognise from 1878/80 though the accompaniment is subtly different. The marking, Andante, quasi allegretto, was unchanged between 1874 and 1878/80. Simone Young’s tempo is relatively swift, leaning towards the second half of Bruckner’s instruction. As was the case in the first movement, though the basic material is the same, there are significant differences between its treatment in 1874 and in 1878/80. The big climax near the end of the movement is prefaced by a significant stretch of unfamiliar music. In this passage it’s noticeable that from 14:58 onwards Bruckner underpins everything with repeated, throbbing triplets. It’s only when we get to 16:44 that the music is recognisably the progenitor of the climax in 1878/80.

The biggest shock of all so far comes with the scherzo. The first two movements have been based on material that will be familiar to all who know the Fourth. However, in making his 1878/80 revision Bruckner wrote a completely new scherzo, discarding the movement that Simone Young plays. This 1874 movement has none of the “hunting horn” material; indeed, the music bears no relation at all to the scherzo that we all know. It carries the marking Sehr schnell. Trio. Im gleichen Tempo. At the very outset a short, pithy motif is played by an unaccompanied solo horn. That’s the melodic cell on which much of the movement is based and, actually, it proves to be excellent, pliable material on which to base a scherzo. The call is answered by a rather strange, “rushing” passage for the rest of the orchestra and again we’ll hear variants of that material at various points in the movement. Michael Lewin suggests that at first hearing the music sounds  “ragged, restless, [and] seems strangely unbalanced and difficult to come to terms with.”  To me it sounds that way even after more than one hearing but therein lies its interest. It’s quite strange music and it strikes me as somewhat experimental.  The movement is somewhat disjointed at times and I don’t believe it’s anything like as tightly organised as the scherzo that replaced it – the trio section is not as interesting as the corresponding section in the 1878/80 scherzo. However, the movement as a whole is a most interesting listen, even if the replacement movement is much to be preferred.

The finale of the Fourth clearly caused Bruckner considerable difficulties for there are no less than three different texts. The one that’s widely known was composed in 1880 and forms part of the 1878/80 text. However, just to complicate matters there’s a chronologically intermediate version, the so-called Volksfest movement. This has been recorded at least once, as a standalone item in Georg Tintner’s Naxos cycle, where it’s coupled with the “Study Symphony”, known as Symphony No 00. I see that Tony Duggan reviewed that CD and commented that in comparison with the 1880 finale, “the "Volksfest" gets diverted down cul-de-sacs where the final version is stronger and more focussed.”  I agree entirely. And since, so far as I can judge without access to scores, the 1874 finale is much closer as a text to the Volksfest than to the 1880 text then Tony’s judgement is valid also in terms of the movement played by Miss Young.

It’s worth saying that the tempo marking for the 1880 finale is Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell. The 1874 version – and the Volksfest, for that matter – is simply marked Allegro moderato. As was the case with the first two movements there are many passages in the finale that recognisably have the same musical DNA as the 1880 finale but there are frequent excursions into unfamiliar territory and quite often these excursions are rather unproductive. What may catch the ear of listeners more than anything else is the very end of the finale. The conclusion to the 1878/80 version is magnificent, combining first mystery and then majesty in the build up to the final peroration where the horn call, heard at the very start of the symphony, reaches its apotheosis, wrapped in tunes of glory. The Volksfest offers a halfway house. By then Bruckner was nearly there, though even then he hadn’t broken through to the splendour of the 1880 version By the side of the 1880 text, or even the Volksfest, the 1874 text is a sad disappointment. Bruckner’s original ending is a rather prosaic and obvious major key blaze. He was to do something similar later in his career for in some ways I’m reminded of his original conclusion to the first movement of the Eighth, where his second thoughts happily replaced a comparatively crude fortissimo ending with the masterly, desolate music with which we are all familiar.

As I indicated at the outset, in some ways I’ve found this a difficult assignment. It’s far from easy to evaluate such a different version of a symphony that one has come to know so well. In particular, it’s a challenge not to make the assumption, even subconsciously, that the familiar 1878/80 text is “better” simply because it’s well known. I do believe that the 1878/80 text is better because I feel that the material in the first two movements and in the finale is much more tautly organised and successfully developed in that later version. I also think that the 1878 scherzo works better and is much more logical. In the last analysis, the 1878/80 text is structurally much more sound and satisfying, I believe, and I genuinely think that this view is not just the result of familiarity with one text over another.

That said, the 1874 version is a fascinating document, not least because it gives us many revealing insights into the evolution of a masterpiece. And in many ways it shows Bruckner as a more daring and experimental composer earlier in his career than we may have believed. The cause of this early version is advanced enormously through the splendid advocacy of Simone Young and her players. I take my hat off to the members of Philharmoniker Hamburg for two reasons. Firstly, and obviously, because they play so magnificently. But also I admire them for turning in such a convincing performance of a score that must have challenged them. Individually and collectively they must have played Bruckner’s Fourth many times – but always in the familiar version. I’m sure they found it fascinating but also rather difficult to play a piece that seems familiar but which isn’t, in fact, all that familiar. Bear in mind also that this recording originates from concert performances.

As for Miss Young’s conducting, all I can say is that she convinced me at every turn. She seems to be in full command of both her orchestra and the score. Her credentials as a Bruckner interpreter are becoming more apparent with each release in this cycle. However, I‘d very much like to hear her also tackle the 1878/80 text, perhaps as an appendix to her cycle.

I listened to this SACD as a conventional CD and I found the sound very satisfying. It’s clear yet has all the richness and amplitude one could desire. The notes, as I indicated earlier, are scholarly and detailed but they’re also rather earnest and they’re not easy to read. Perhaps the translator is to blame – I don’t know because I can’t read the German original. However, as this series, based on original versions, is so important and the textural issues are so crucial to an appreciation of it I’d urge OEHMS to seek greater clarity in the notes for future issues.

The 1874 version of the Fourth is unlikely to be heard often in performance so Bruckner collectors should seize the opportunity to hear it in this splendid performance.

John Quinn




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