Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (1874)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. 30 October 2008, Royal Festival Hall, London
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.
Dan Morgan
Not an epiphany in sight; one for the charity shop. 

Masterwork Index: Symphony 4