RECORD OF MONTH
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.4 in E flat major, Romantic (1888 version) [63:21]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. January 2009, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
Having been honoured with the task of reviewing Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota’s Beethoven Symphony cycle on BIS and still very much basking in the glow of this set’s excellent qualities, it was hardly surprising that I would leap at the chance of hearing them in Bruckner’s magnificent Symphony No.4.
There is however a certain amount of juicy controversy here. Benjamin Korsvedt’s usefully informative booklet notes do a great deal to justify the decision to record the 1888 version of this symphony. That said, classical critic-gazers will know that certain quarters have already been letting off steam about a ‘new critical edition’ of this version of the symphony which, we are given the impression, was forced out of the composer by publisher Emil Gutmann almost at gunpoint. This new edition of the work comes from the International Bruckner Society of Vienna and is the score that is used in this performance: editor, Benjamin D. Korsvedt.
I have no intention of becoming mixed up in arguments over what should be what, but point this out as one of the spicy little arguments which can make the classical music world vibrate at just a little above A=c100° in some localities. Those in opposition argue that Bruckner’s final intentions are represented by the manuscripts he donated to the Imperial Library in Vienna, amongst which the 1888 version of the Symphony No.4 is emphatically not included. The booklet notes go into some detail with regard to the differences in the 1888 score, but the argument Korsvedt makes for this version is largely historical. This was the score which was authorised by Bruckner and, published in 1890, went a long way towards advancing his reputation on the European musical stage. The case made for the work shown by Bruckner’s own annotations to this version is either that of the composer making the best of a reluctantly approved job in “numerous revisions and emendations subsequently made by Bruckner himself” to the vilified Schalk/Löwe 1888 manuscript, or as testimony to “the care and seriousness with which the composer undertook its preparation.” Both quotes come from Korsvedt’s notes by the way which is a bit naughty of me, but you can appreciate the subjective and emotional complexities in which one can become involved depending on which side of the fence you stand. I stand on neither side and am sitting firmly on the fence as usual – the simple reason being that this is the joy of CDs, happily allowing one to have the choice and the opportunity to own and compare both versions and allowing the listener to make up their own mind.
After ditching Eugene Jochum’s Dresden cycle as being a bit too dry and uninvolving, my main Bruckner symphonic reference in the more recent past has been that of Bernard Haitink in his classic 1965 Concertgebouw Orchestra recording on Philips. This is rather ancient, but aside from some analogue tape hiss this is a reliably impressive recording of the 1878 2nd version of the Symphony No.4, with the addition of the 1880 revised version of the finale – the best of both worlds, as it were. Call me an ignorant un-intellectual non-academic slob by all means, but having dutifully brought out my 1950s Eulenburg Edition of the score, “based on ... a collation of all printed scores (including ... versions II/III) ” I find myself pretty much failing to see or hear what all the fuss is about. I was expecting to become lost at least once with all these cuts and alterations I’d been reading about, but instead I more interestingly found myself learning much more about Bruckner’s remarkable inventiveness and Osmo Vänskä and his orchestra’s stunning achievement.
Vänskä doesn’t go in for unusual tempi and nor should any conductor, as the metronome markings are clearly given in the score. As a general first impression his is a performance which is as light as it can be where the music allows, and in this way he follows on from Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Concertgebouw recording on Warner Elatus which is also notable in this regard. Gone are the stodgy textures and heavier tread of some older recordings, and in many of the transitional passages I count Haitink’s 1965 recording among these. Haitink is not intrinsically heavy, but this new recording is significantly more transparent in comparison. Vänskä gives a pleasantly pastoral feel to such ‘in between’ moments, picking up every detail from the score but thinning textures by quietening tremolo strings and forbidding over-long lingering on notes. This is all to the good of the full tutti sections, which can have a remarkable weight and impact. The woodwinds are excellent, but the Minnesota brass is particularly strong in this regard, blazing out nobly over the rest of the orchestra without clouding the depth of sonority provided by the remaining instruments. They have absolute control and intonation at those prominent fanfares in the first movement, the first of these occurring at 4:58 for cue seekers, and form a steady backbone for the entire recording.
Familiar with the Minnesota orchestra’s sound from that Beethoven box, I find they adapt supremely well to the more rarefied Bruckner idiom. Vänskä has an ear for Bruckner the avant-garde explorer, sensitively bringing out the kinds of gesture which echo on in similarly minded symphonists such as Dvorák and Mahler, the latter of whom conducted this symphony to great success late in Bruckner’s life. In fact, I would say to those among you who favour the more overtly emotional edge of Mahler and have sidelined Bruckner for whatever reason, try this recording – you will find these contemporaries have more in common than you might have imagined. While this interpretation is not overtly romantic, it doesn’t shy away from heat of passion and conviction Bruckner put into the work, and those chorale touches always sound through as a warmly moving reminder of the composer’s religious faith.
In my view, Vänskä’s sense of shape and direction in this recording is pretty much spot-on. I would like to say unsurpassed, but that would assume intimate knowledge of every other recording around and I can’t make that claim. What I will say is that this is the kind of recording which has re-awakened my interest in Bruckner, much as Haitink did after my ears had taken the strain of Roberto Paternostro’s not entirely successful cycle, so if there is to be any more from this quarter I shall be first in the queue. That little extra sense of repose at the beginning of the second movement has a marvellous feel, relaxing and anticipatory at the same time. The sense of space and lyrical expression through the movement is both unpretentious and poetic – the kind of alchemy which I know will see me returning to this recording more often in attempts to divine the secret. I have no trouble with the final two movements, the ones supposedly messed around with the most in this version of the score. The Scherzo is playful and dramatic, the punch of the brass and sheer dynamics of the recording making for an impressive ride. Bruckner’s trickily fragmented writing is skilfully dealt with here, with the warmth of the Minnesota strings creating instantaneous moments of deep expression. The Finale is a masterpiece of atmosphere and drama, the opening providing one of those rare thrills which can either go into wallowing melodrama or, as here, tightly expressed and forceful musical argument building to that heady reprise of the opening theme of the symphony at 2:20. Once again, Vänskä observes Bruckner’s variations in tempi and ritardandi, holding everything in proportion and maintaining a sense of flow and scale both human and grandly architectural.
1888 version or not, this is a tremendous performance and recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No.4, and as far as I am concerned there should be no controversy standing in the way of anyone trying it. I challenge anyone to put this recording against all comers and find it wanting in any regard, and in fact, I would challenge anyone listening to this without preconception and bias not to discover new and marvellous things about this symphony. The SACD recording is a tremendous bonus, and one of those cases where, having experienced the full surround effect, you are unlikely to be interested in listening to this again in mere stereo – good though this mix is. Especially with the full weight of orchestral sound the sonics open out and become jaw-droppingly good. Benjamin Korsvedt’s own conclusion is that, “in the end, it is the musical effectiveness of the score that is most telling.” In this case, the most telling evidence is the musical effectiveness of the performance, and on that score I have no reservations whatsoever.
No reservations whatsoever.
General Survey of Bruckner Symphonic Recordings