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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
The Mature Symphonies
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, Romantic (1878/80 version)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. 20 June 2010, Philharmonie, Berlin
Director: Andreas Morell
Region Code: 0 (worldwide); Picture Format: 16:9. Sound format: PCM Stereo; Dolby 5.1; DTS 5.1.
ACCENTUS ACC20217 [69:36]

This is the first in a planned series of DVD releases, featuring a season of concerts in which Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin played the last six Bruckner symphonies at the Philharmonie in June 2010.
 
Barenboim is very well versed in Bruckner and made complete audio cycles first with the Chicago Symphony for DG and then with the Berlin Philharmonic for Warner. Tony Duggan was not too impressed with Barenboim’s 1973 Chicago reading (review). I don’t believe I’ve heard that recording but I was struck by Tony’s remark, speaking of the slow movement: “There is much more here and in a few years Barenboim will be able to deliver it.” In fact that seemed to me to sum up Tony’s overall view of the performance as a whole. Fast forward some twenty years to Barenboim’s 1992 Berlin reading and, judging by Terry Barfoot’s review, Tony Duggan was prescient in predicting that Barenboim would be able to find much more in the score in due time. Now, nearly twenty years further down the line, what are we to make of Barenboim’s latest traversal of this symphony? 

I haven’t heard either of Barenboim’s earlier audio traversals but Tony and Terry are reliable judges and so, if one accepts their respective verdicts, which indicate a progression and a deepening in Barenboim’s approach to this symphony, then I think that this 2010 traversal must mark a further advance. It’s an extremely impressive reading and, working with an orchestra with which he’s been closely associated since 1992 and with which he has an evident rapport, Barenboim elicits some wonderful playing.
 
The physical layout that Barenboim adopts interests me. The violins are divided left and right, something of which I heartily approve. The cellos and violas are in the centre of the stage and the double basses are not on the conductor’s right hand, as is most usually the case, but on his left hand, behind the first violins and cellos. Apart from affording the very welcome left-right split of the violins this disposition ensures that Barenboim has the alto and tenor sections of his strings - the heart of the sound - right in the centre of the stage. I’m sure that is a significant factor - along with the skill of the players - in producing such a full, satisfying tone from the string section in particular and from the orchestra as a whole. As evidence of the quality of cello tone and phrasing sample the way the players deliver the theme at the very start of the second movement.
 
It’s well known that Barenboim is a huge admirer of Wilhelm Furtwängler and this performance of Bruckner’s Fourth is marked by a similar sort of flexibility of tempo to that famously associated with Furtwängler. This approach is not to everyone’s taste and Barenboim’s way with the music seems more subjective than, say, that of Bernard Haitink. Though I greatly admire Haitink in Bruckner, not least for his objectivity and structural soundness, I must declare that I found Barenboim’s conducting extraordinarily convincing. He moulds phrases with great care, though never obsessively, still less in any narcissistic way. Instead, what comes through in the way he shapes the music is his determination to present it in the best possible light and vividly to communicate Bruckner’s vision to the audience. As with Furtwängler, you feel all the time that Barenboim is penetrating through the notes to get to, and elucidate, the meaning behind the notes.
 
As well as flexibility of tempo there’s often considerable urgency in Barenboim’s conducting. That’s especially true in the first movement where he makes the music vital and dynamic without underplaying the noble side of things. If I say it’s an exciting reading I don’t mean for one minute that the excitement generated is in any way superficial or involves any playing to the gallery. The contribution of the principal horn, so crucial hereabouts, is superb and his colleagues in the horn section and in the wider brass family follow his lead. The strings, already impressive in the first movement, are to the fore in the Andante and they play with distinction. The majestic climax, prepared expertly, is very fine and satisfying.
 
The ‘hunting’ material in the scherzo is taken at quite a lick - this hunt is in full cry - and the articulation of the Berlin brass is fully up to the challenge set for them by Barenboim. The trio is mellow, relaxed and affectionately played; here the woodwind give particular pleasure. The finale has sometimes been held to be the weakest movement and it’s true that it can seem episodic. That’s not the case here. The movement opens amid palpable, hushed tension and Barenboim controls expertly the build-up to the first great tutti. Thereafter he welds the episodes of the finale together into a convincing and exciting whole. Along the way there’s a good deal of sensitive playing - and some fiery passages also. The brass are tireless and it’s noticeable that even in the loudest passages their golden tone is never compromised. There’s an intense hush at the beginning of the build-up to the final peroration and the very end of the symphony blazes gloriously.
 
There’s a charming moment at the end. The horn section includes a young female player. As the applause begins the camera cuts to her and we see her turn to her neighbour with a look of wonder and sheer delight on her face. A few minutes later, when Barenboim brings all the horn players to their feet this young lady is still smiling broadly: it’s evident she realises she’s just been part of a pretty special performance.
 
This is a very considerable account of Bruckner’s Fourth. As I mentioned earlier, this was the first of a series of concerts in which Daniel Barenboim and this orchestra played all of Bruckner’s last six symphonies. The other instalments are scheduled for future DVD release and I await their release with keen anticipation.
 
The camera-work on this DVD is conventional in the best sense in that the director presents a straightforward film of the concert that is mercifully free from any gimmickry or distractions. The cameras focus on the right players at the right time and on Barenboim as well though this is not one of those films that focuses on the conductor with occasional cuts to let us see a few members of the orchestra. It’s an excellent production and the sound quality is also very good.
 
John Quinn    

Masterwork Index: Bruckner 4


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