Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major ‘Romantic’ (Version 1878-1881; Cohrs A04B)
discarded Scherzo and ‘Volksfest’ Finale (Cohrs A04B–1 & 2)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 5 October 2021, Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London, UK
LSO LIVE LSO0875 SACD [2 discs: 126]
First, a brief explanation of the “USP” here: as well as giving us the most commonly performed 1881 version of this symphony, Simon Rattle has also recorded on a second CD the earliest Scherzo - discarded in favour of the ‘Hunt’ - and the 1878 ‘Volksfest’ finale which was likewise substituted by a completely new movement, plus earlier, pre-abridgement versions of the Andante and finale. This selling point is in fact hardly “unique”, insofar as conductors such as Gerd Schaller have recorded the 1874 version and the ‘Volksfest’, and Jakub Hrůša recently gave us a 4 CD set (review) of the three major versions and discarded drafts and versions in the new editions prepared by Benjamin Korstvedt, whereas here the new Urtext Edition by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohr is employed – and that, in combination with the eminence of the performers here, could be reason enough for Brucknerians to welcome this issue.
Nonetheless, personally I have never much enjoyed Rattle’s recordings of Bruckner, with the sole and notable exception of his Ninth with the SPCM finale made a decade ago with the BPO – and my reaction to this latest release with the LSO is one of modified rapture – at least up until hearing the finale. Before considering the supplements on the second disc, any prospective purchaser will want to know if the symphony as a whole replicates an emotional journey in a four-movement sequence of the kind the composer envisaged in 1881.
The very first horn call needs to emerge from the mist and hang in the air; sadly, this one is devoid of presence and mystery and sounds very matter of fact. There is insufficient weight in the brass and Rattle’s chosen tempo is much too fast; Bruckner’s explicit instructions – “Bewegt; nicht zu schnell” – are ignored. The orchestra has no space to sing; the notes are all there but smoothed over, as are the dynamics which are too homogenised and insufficiently contrasted. To my ears – and to those of a fellow Bruckner enthusiast whose sensitive ears I recruited for the purposed of listening and writing this review - Rattle does not seem to have a coherent vision of the music which he wants to convey. As a result, the performance sounds like a run through and is almost invariably too quick; for example, the first climax at 7:50 sounds rushed and perfunctory. At the reprise of the opening theme, the horn is insufficiently brazen and dominated by the flute, which is the reverse of the ideal and the ensuing development is bland; the emotional content is underplayed and grandeur is in short supply. Finally, the tripping third subject doesn’t contrast sufficiently with what has gone before. In sum, the first movement fails to deliver.
The Andante goes much better; both the basic tempo and dynamic contrasts are good but phrasing is four-square and metronomic and the pizzicato accompaniment to the main theme is over-prominent. Balances seem to have gone awry here and whether that is faulty engineering, an acoustical issue or Rattle’s direction is hard to say – but there it is. The first big climax just before the mid-way point is neatly gauged and from that point on everything goes very well - in music where in fact there is less to go wrong. The climax is well prepared and the LSO makes a grand sound; the final hushed bars are very atmospheric – just lovely.
In the Scherzo, the horns come across as rather lost and remote - a bit “fluffy” and under-articulated, perhaps because Rattle is pressing the tempo so hard. Again, balances are poor and textures are thick and muddled.
The instruction for the finale is again “not too fast” but this time Rattle seems to pay heed and now we enter a different interpretative dimension: the pace is apt; tension and mystery prevail before we hear a fine climax with prominent timpani. The funeral march beginning three minutes in is stately and compelling and the orchestral playing assumes a new precision and articulation in the phrasing, the brass in particular attaining a really pleasing depth of sonority. This movement is by far the best of this recording; Rattle finds the right contrasts in dynamics and tempi, making me wonder why he could not previously have applied those subtleties and nuances. The great outburst at 11:20 is really striking and the application of rubato and rallentando is noticeable in comparison with the preceding movements. The all-important coda is perhaps rather too fast for some tastes but it is skilfully managed and builds magnificently – but then a poor ending mars the final bar: it is too soft, with the final crotchet extended, when the orchestra needs instead to be cut short, staccato, perhaps with a strong timpani stroke – as per Karajan’s epic account.
Moving on to the bonus disc, I wonder how many listeners outside academic circles – i.e. the general punter like me – will really appreciate or indeed much care about the differences between the cut and uncut versions of movements; the main focus has to be upon the symphony as performed on CD 1 and as I have tried to explain above, its desirability is limited in the context of having some legendary competition. The ‘Volksfest’, at least, can stand alone as a separate work of interest and it is powerfully and energetically delivered here, even if most Brucknerians will agree that it is markedly inferior to its replacement. It is a rather fragmented, episodic movement and hard to make cohere but the sheer quality of the LSO’s playing certainly advocates its appeal and intrinsic worth – and those elements of its conclusion familiar from the ending usually encountered provoke both excitement and the thrill of recognition on the part of the listener when realised as dramatically as they are here. The discarded Scherzo, too, is of a piece and wholly different from the familiar ‘Hunt’; as is his wont, Rattle charges ahead with it but there is much compensatory nuance of phrasing and even if, like the ‘Volksfest’, it must yield to its successor in terms of quality, Rattle delivers it more successfully than he does its counterpart on the first disc.
The extended slow movement and finale are not perhaps so very different from their 1881 versions as to merit each its own long track but they contain such lovely music that it is no trial to hear them again, especially as both reflect the best of Rattle’s interpretative acumen and the Mahlerian funeral march in the forest we hear in the uncut Andante in particular benefits from being given extra “heavenly length”.
I should, however, iterate the unique nature of this recording and to do so I take the liberty of quoting Prof. Cohrs' own words: "This is the first recording which allows for listening to several work phases of the Fourth from one recording. (A double CD player helps of course): You can have the full symphony as it stood by end of 1878 (with the extended old Andante, the 1876 or 1878 Scherzo, and the Volksfest Finale), or the Symphony as it stood 1882 with the abbridged or unabridge Finale (for the latter: CD I 1-3 and CD II 4). This is unique on CD, since on the Hrusa recording you have many bits and music examples, but no integral version of the longer old Andante, and the abbridged Finale 1881 is a real CD premiere!"
In the end, however, a certain intermittent vagueness in the first three movements of the main offering here is partially redeemed by a splendid finale - but this is surely not a first choice recording.
Symphony No 4 in E-flat Major, ‘Romantic’ (Version 1878–81; Cohrs A04B) [61:32]
1. I. Bewegt; nicht zu schnell (1881) [17:37]
2. II. Andante quasi Allegretto (1881) [15:23]
3. III. Scherzo. Bewegt – Trio. Nicht zu schnell. Keinesfalls schleppend – Scherzo da capo (1881)
4. IV. Finale. Bewegt; doch nicht zu schnell (1881; abridged) [17:39]
Symphony No 4 in E-flat Major, ‘Romantic’ (Cohrs A04B) [65:05]
1.[Discarded] Scherzo. Sehr schnell – Trio. Im gleichen Tempo – Scherzo da capo [11:55]
(1874/rev. 1876; Cohrs A04B–1)
2.[Discarded] Finale (‘Volksfest’). Allegro moderato (1878; Cohrs A04B–2) [15:48]
3. Andante quasi Allegretto (1878; extended initial version) ]16:37]
4. Finale. Bewegt; doch nicht zu schnell (1881; unabridged) [20:45]
Performed in the Urtext Edition by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, newly published
by Alexander Hermann Publishing Group, Vienna 2021.
Review commissioned by, and reproduced here by kind permission of, The Bruckner Journal.
Published: October 20, 2022