Where do I start? That’s the question I hear most from
listeners keen to explore the symphonies of Anton Bruckner.
Invariably I suggest the Fourth, as it addresses many of the
structural uncertainties of his earlier ones and heralds the
scale and sweep of the Fifth and beyond. The Romantic
has been well served on record. Karl Böhm’s classic
Vienna account for Decca is regarded as one of the finest in
the catalogue. Then there’s Eugen Jochum, whose various
cycles for EMI and DG are also held in high esteem. Rather more
recently - in 1998 - another respected Brucknerian, Günter
Wand, recorded a live Fourth with the Berliner Philharmoniker
that quickly became my benchmark for this work (RCA Red Seal).
Many conductors, from Furtwängler to Harnoncourt, have
brought something new to this music, but few have done so with
the authority and insight of our triumvirate. I was pleased
to return to all three, starting with Jochum’s Berlin
version. Recorded in 1967, the sound isn’t as rich and
incisive as I’d remembered; nor is the reading as lofty
and coherent as I’d once thought. Even the Berliners aren’t
as polished as they are for Wand. Jochum’s structures
are more craggy than monumental. Switch to the Böhm - recorded
in 1973 - and those fabled Viennese horns make an unforgettable
impact. Also, the music is unerringly shaped and steered in
a way that even Jochum can’t quite manage.
Then there’s Wand, whose aristocratic manner is matched
by equally patrician playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker.
As for the RCA recording it ensures those big. striding tuttis
are accommodated with ease. The whole structure is built with
supreme confidence and bathed in a splendid glow. Indeed, hearing
this performance makes one remember why devotees fall to their
knees at these mighty altars. It also serves as a reminder of
just what Dohnányi and his orchestra are up against.
Then again the Philharmonia are no strangers to this composer.
Their Bruckner Sixth with Klemperer (EMI) was one of the glories
of the gramophone, although it does show its age on CD.
Dohnányi’s performance doesn’t start too
well. There’s some less than secure horn playing, and
although the first movement has plenty of weight it’s
also unremittingly dull. True, there’s a distinct pulse
here, but it flutters, and those misted moments lack the looming
majesty one gets with Böhm and Wand. In some ways Dohnányi’s
reading reminds me of Jochum’s, in that it tends to fixate
on the moment at the expense of the whole hour. As a result
one gets very little sense of the long cross-beams on which
the work is so carefully built.
The Philharmonia certainly aren’t having a good night
and even though there’s some brilliance to their playing
it all sounds rather tentative. Tempo relationships, so important
in Bruckner, are also ill-judged with Dohnányi sprinting
for the finish line. As if that weren't frustrating enough,
the lilting Andante is ruined by dragging tempi and a sickly
pallor. Really, I can’t recall a more leaden response
to this lovely music. As for the recording it’s reasonably
detailed and immediate. The hunting scherzo blazes with unaccustomed
energy and conviction.
Sadly it doesn’t last. Moments of hot pursuit are followed
by aimless wanderings. A sharp tug on the reins and the finale
takes off at quite a lick. Now that’s more like it, but
then momentum flags as suddenly as it began. By contrast Böhm
and Wand strike a good balance between weight and propulsion,
just one of many challenges in these symphonies. There’s
too much of the latter in this case, resulting in ragged, overdriven
climaxes. Even allowing for the imprecisions of a live performance
the playing is extremely variable.
Anyone familiar with those classic Fourths - yes, even the Jochum
- will find little or nothing to inspire them here. Dohnányi
has done a few memorable recordings - of Mendelssohn and Dvořák
especially - but otherwise I find him all too earthbound. And
that’s not what one wants in Bruckner.
Not an epiphany in sight; one for the charity shop.
Masterwork Index: Symphony