Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, WAB 105
Version III 1888 (ed. Korstvedt 2004)
Altomonte Orchester St Florian/Rémy Ballot
rec. live, 21 August 2021, Stiftsbasilika St Florian, Upper Austria
GRAMOLA 99261 SACD 
This series of recordings of live performances of Bruckner’s symphonies from the annual Brucknertage festivals at the Stiftsbasilika St. Florian has been generally well received.
The Fourth – the ‘Romantic’ - is perhaps the most often performed Bruckner symphony and is the one on which he spent more time than any other, undertaking three major revisions. After 16 years of rewriting this, the third, is considered to be critical, its significance being that the symphony became darker and gloomier, especially in the more protracted finale. This performance uses the 1888 version edited by the American musicologist Dr Benjamin M. Korstvedt and published in 2004; it has been used in several other recordings including those by Akiro Naito, Osmo Vänskä, Franz Welser-Möst, and Jakub Hrůša (review). In the words of Korstvedt, ‘the 1888 version was intended not as an abstract “Urtext” or an academic conception but as a living musical performance text, its special beauty and communicative power can only emerge when it is performed for an audience of music lovers gathered for the event.’
Korstvedt’s critical edition makes alterations to the tempo and metronome markings; according to the conductor, ‘we’re talking transitions, numerous and precise changes of tempos, dynamics, instrumentation, and two moderate contractions. These appear at first view to be mere details, seemingly trifling ones, that couldn’t possibly change the work for the listener on first hearing. But the modifications change the nature of the symphony – or do they show us its true nature in the first place? Or is it a bit of both?... a golden thread that runs through the different instrumental groups in the orchestra makes the musical discourse in the Third Version more nuanced and richer in contrast. The structure of the whole work now even more obviously leads up to the coda of the finale… and underlines the fact that this last, stellular ascension within itself the entire musical message of Anton Bruckner.’ Bruckner adds a pianissimo cymbal crash to the trumpet before the culmination which in Ballot’s opinion, ‘brings us to “ground zero”, to a point of oblivion: an allegory of the creation of the universe, the point of nonbeing.’
It is clear from the magical Ruhig bewegt opening bars, in which we hear the horn and shimmering strings, that Gramola’s engineers have mastered the acoustics of the Stiftsbasilika St Florian. Some of the symphony’s most moving moments are in the Andante, while in the Scherzo the standard of orchestral playing is evident in the superb contribution of the woodwind, accentuated by a wonderfully stirring Trio, and the Mässig bewegt finale is intensely exciting - one senses an evocation of a great eagle preparing to take to the sky and rising majestically as the brass cry out in full glory before the close.
This critical edition of the third version of Bruckner’s Fourth is entirely convincing, and while I will return to other versions, I find the overwhelming beauty of Bruckner’s music in this performance to be almost a religious event. The SACD recording gives one the feeling of being in the central pews of the Stiftsbasilika, it is so fully realistic and moving.
This orchestra was created exclusively for the Brucknertage festivals and named after the frescos in the St Florian monastery by the baroque painters Martino and Bartolomeo. It is formed from professional musicians from leading European orchestras and the young musicians of the Oberösterreichisches Jugendsinfonieorchester (who perform in the recordings of the Sixth and Eighth symphonies). For those who have already acquired Rémy Ballot’s recordings of Bruckner’s symphonies – only the First Symphony remains to be released – this Fourth Symphony should be an obligatory purchase, and to those who have yet to hear the other recordings, I would certainly recommend buying this fine release. The booklet is in German and English with several pages devoted to the symphony and additional articles by the conductor and by Dr Korstvedt, with information about the orchestra and conductor all well presented and several colour photographs of the performance.
Previous review: Ralph Moore