Anton BRUCKNER (1824 -1896)
Symphony No 4 in E-flat major Romantic (ed. Haas) (1874) [64:19]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. live, 30 October 2008, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. DDD
Christoph von Dohnányi is the sort of conductor I like. He’s highly experienced and thoroughly musical. Above all, one is never conscious of any intention to interpose himself between the listener and the music, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have firm interpretative views. Having enjoyed his Brahms cycle with the Philharmonia (review) I was keen to hear him in Bruckner.
The present performance was given at the start of Dohnányi’s tenure as Honorary Conductor for Life of the Philharmonia; he had retired from the post of Principal Conductor at the end of the 2007/8 season after serving in that post since 1997. So he and the orchestra knew each other pretty well by 2008 and in this performance it sounds like it. This is a seasoned interpretation by a conductor who is at one with his orchestra.
Dohnányi is often relatively fleet in the first movement - though I hasten to add that he doesn’t make the music sound rushed. It’s noticeable, however, that he brings the movement in at 17:42. By comparison with versions that I especially admire, Bernard Haitink in his Vienna Philharmonic recording (review) takes 20:38 and Günter Wand with the Berlin Philharmonic (review) takes 19:08. There’s also the famous 1973 Karl Böhm recording with the VPO (Decca) in which the first movement plays for 20:08; unlike all these other conductors, Böhm uses the Nowak edition of the score. Perhaps Dohnányi misses the last little bit of breadth which conductors such as the three rivals mentioned above achieve so naturally but rather that than sound laboured or pompous, which the music can seem in lesser hands. The Philharmonia are on very fine form: the brass don’t overplay their hand but their playing has real presence while the horns are heroic. In the more delicate stretches of the movement the wind are quite prominent in Bruckner’s writing and the Philharmonia players do him proud.
It may be heresy to say so but, though I’m a Bruckner devotee, I find the slow movement one of his less interesting movements. Dohnányi paces it well; a nice, comfortable - but not complacent - walking speed. Again, the orchestra plays very well for him. The hunting scherzo is suitably spirited - the horns excelling once more - and I like the gentle rusticity of the trio.
In the finale Dohnányi conveys the majestic episodes very well but never tips over into bombast. His is a good, well-paced reading of the movement. The Philharmonia brass section is excellent: there’s satisfying power in their playing but the power is never overweening. The build-up from nothing to the final glorious peroration (track 4 from 17:04) is very impressive. Incidentally, as compared with studio versions Dohnányi’s true timing for this movement is 19:40, which again shaves a couple of minutes off the timings of my three comparative versions; the performance is followed by over 40 seconds of applause.
If I say that this is a sound and reliable performance of Bruckner’s Fourth I don’t for one moment mean to damn it with faint praise. The interpretation is sensible, well thought through and thoroughly musical. It doesn’t displace any of the three alternative versions mentioned in this review, all of which are very special, but it’s a good performance that’s finely played and presented in very good sound.
John Quinn  

A sound and reliable Bruckner Fourth.

see also review by Dan Morgan and of the concert by Colin Clarke

Masterwork Index: Bruckner Symphony 4