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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (version 1878/80 edited Nowak) [66.07]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. live, 6-8 December 2013, Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, USA

On the back of two previous successes in the ‘Pittsburgh Live’ series, playing Strauss and Dvořák/Janáček, Manfred Honeck and his forces return with a compelling reading of Bruckner’s Fourth. My keenness to review this release was engendered by the enthusiastic critical acclaim generated by the two previous offerings. Once again the format is a multi-channel hybrid SACD in the FRESH series, produced by the Soundmirror team of Boston for the American-based Reference Recordings.

Honeck has provided intelligently informed booklet notes, drawing on scholarly research, in which he sets out his stall, sharing insights on the work and explaining how he arrived at his interpretation. He has chosen Leopold Nowak’s 1953 edition of the 1886 version, known to some as the 1878/1880 version. This constitutes Bruckner’s revision of the original, with the substitution of a completely new finale. It was in this form that the symphony received its Vienna premiere in 1881 under the baton of Hans Richter. Most recordings I have of this work go with the Nowak, and I have heard it said that many conductors consider it the most reliable version.

Together with the Seventh Symphony, the Fourth must surely hold the distinction of being one of Bruckner’s most frequently performed works. It was certainly the first of his symphonies to achieve significant public acclaim. Whilst spirituality forms one of the underlying elements, with this symphony the composer drew his inspiration from folklore, depicting knights, castles, hunting horns and rural life. Honeck states in his essay: ‘….the Fourth Symphony can be considered his most secular. Spirituality is to be found only in rare moments and remains not more than hints’. He goes on to say of the symphony that it ‘refers to the nature found in German-Austrian landscapes and its myths’. He sees the work as a four movement tone poem, explaining how the composer came up with the title ‘Romantic’.

Any newcomer, who sets forth on the well-trodden road of a work such as this, will be expected to bring something new to the score. Honeck succeeds admirably, to my mind, in furnishing his reading with a wealth of insights, based on meticulous research, and coming up with the goods – a revelatory performance. From the quiet opening bars, the shimmering strings and horn set the scene for what is to follow. ‘In the first movement of the "Romantic" Fourth Symphony the intention is to depict the horn that proclaims the day from the town hall’, the composer himself said. The slow movement, showcasing the richness of the Pittsburgh strings, has great nobility and stature. The Scherzo’s depiction of the hunt is captured resplendently by the superlative brass section. In the finale Honeck brings together the many disparate ideas into one cohesive whole. Noticeable is the fact that there are no awkward changes of gear when the tempo changes. There is seamless continuity throughout.
This is an edge-of-the-seat performance in exceptionally warm, resonant and well-focused, sound, with a wide dynamic range. The Heinz Hall provides a sympathetic acoustic, allowing instrumental detail to be realized with clarity and definition. I will single out for special mention the exceptionally fine brass section, whose burnished tone rings out to striking effect at climaxes. The performance itself has all the spontaneity and excitement of a live concert, with audience participation in no way intrusive.

I have many recordings of Bruckner 4 in my collection, but there are two which, to my mind, stand head and shoulders above the others – Karl  Böhm’s 1970s VPO reading and Günter Wand’s live 1998 BPO recording on RCA. I can confidently add Honeck’s thrilling performance to my list of favorites.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month) ~~ Dan Morgan