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Bruckner: Symphony No 4 "Romantic" (1874 Version) / Norrington, Stuttgart Radio Symphony

Release Date: 11/11/2008 
Label:  Swr Music   Catalog #: 93218   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Anton Bruckner
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 4, “Romantic” (1874) Roger Norrington, cond; Stuttgart RSO HÄNSSLER 93.218 (60:33) Live: Stuttgart 4/26–27/2007

The original 1874 version of Bruckner’s Fourth never appeared in concert during the composer’s lifetime and was not even published until a century later in a 1975 edition by Leopold Nowak. With its extensive length (1,987 measures), daring harmonic gestures, agitated rhythms, and insistent repetition, the original Fourth is perhaps Bruckner’s Read more most radical work prior to the feverish music he wrote in the unfinished finale of his Ninth. To put this in proper perspective, it should be noted that the 1874 version of the Fourth was completed two years before the more conservative Brahms Symphony No. 1 made its concert debut.

Bruckner’s first attempt at the Fourth has gotten sharply divergent reactions. To critic Richard Osborne ( Gramophone , April 2007), “it is a work which holds little interest, unless you are fascinated by process (think of those dweeby Austenites who insist on reading First Impressions the better to understand the Pride and Prejudice which it eventually became).” By contrast, musicologist Benjamin Gunnar Cohrs (author of the CD booklet notes here) calls the 1874 Scherzo “thematically better integrated than its successor” and regards the original finale as “more cogent” than the revisions.

The Fourth is Bruckner’s first symphony in a major key, the only one with a formal subtitle (“Romantic”), and the last to feature an Andante as the slow movement (each later work has an Adagio). In 1875, Bruckner persuaded the Vienna Philharmonic to give the Fourth a test rehearsal. The first movement was judged as fit for performance, but the rest was dismissed as “idiotic.” An official from the Vienna Conservatory then advised poor Bruckner: “High time you threw your symphonies into a trash can. You can earn more money making piano arrangements of other composers’ works.”

It was only after the disastrous 1877 premiere of his Third Symphony that Bruckner set about revising his Fourth. In 1878, he shortened the first two movements, completely rewrote the Scherzo, and made many changes to the finale. In 1880, Bruckner substituted a slightly different finale, and that Fourth, roughly 300 bars shorter than before, is the one most often heard today (generally known as the “1878/80 version,” it was tweaked again in 1881 and 1886). A final revision of the Fourth was completed in 1888, and it became the first published score. That one is still controversial: many corrections in Bruckner’s handwriting are visible on the printer’s score, but he may have been pressured unduly by his pupil Ferdinand Löwe. The first two movements of the 1888 are the same length as in the 1878/80, but 65 bars of the Scherzo reprise are cut and the finale is abbreviated and slightly restructured (the latter adds a loud cymbal clash at bar 76, and two light cymbal clashes are heard in the coda). All three versions are fascinating and deserve to be heard, but the 1878/80 strikes my Goldilocks barometer as the one that’s “just right,” whereas the 1874 remains overly long and the 1888 is decidedly too short.

This live 2007 performance by Norrington of the 1874 version comes from two concerts given on consecutive days. At 60:33, it’s the fastest 1874 on disc. Other recordings of this version include the Wöss (75:03 on a vanished Brucknerhaus LP set), Inbal (68: 04 on Teldec), Rozhdestvensky (76:28 on deleted BMG), Lopez-Cobos (70:02 on Telarc), Gielen (63:55 on deleted EMI), Davies (67:19 on Arte Nova), Young (70:01 on Oehms), and Bosch (68:56 on Coviello). I haven’t heard the Gielen, while the recent Young and Bosch readings have yet to come my way. The two I’ve weeded are Rozhdestvensky (too slow overall and marred by unidiomatic Russian brass) and the generally mediocre Davies. The 1975 Wöss/Munich Philharmonic is the lone world premiere recording of any Bruckner original version, but it’s sluggish and not particularly well executed (e.g., there are too many bloopers in the brass). Incidentally, Kurt Wöss (1914–1987) was a Weingartner pupil who reportedly died while conducting a Bruckner Fourth at Dresden. Judging from the 1874 Fourth recordings I’ve heard, the troop leaders are Norrington, the 1982 Inbal, and the 1990 Lopez-Cobos. Ultimately, Norrington emerges as the most brilliantly executed and the best recorded.

When listening to the 1874 first movement, it quickly becomes evident why Bruckner needed to revise it: the main themes are identical to those heard in the later versions, but there are many detours that don’t seem to lead anywhere. More to the point, the extreme complexity and jagged rhythms of the writing (especially for the brass) were most surely beyond the playing capabilities of any orchestra in Bruckner’s day. Thus, the composer’s revisions simplified matters and focused more directly on melodic development with fewer digressions. Unfortunately, some lovely music got sacrificed as a result. A prime example: at letter N in the 1874 score, a Schubert-like interlude builds to letter P, where a gentle restatement of the opening horn theme is set against an exquisite counterpoint in the strings (the latter is heard starting at 9:33 from Norrington, 11:55 in the Inbal, and at 12:20 in the Lopez-Cobos). That music lasts about two minutes, but it’s truly sublime.

The 1874 Andante quasi allegretto is basically a longer and more ambitious version of what’s heard in the revisions. Here I was a bit apprehensive about a Norrington drawback noted in my review of his Bruckner Sixth ( Fanfare 32:3): a tendency to “droning strings” that sound like “a moaning cow.” However, while a tad ascetic, the strings sound just fine here, or perhaps my recent listening to period instruments (i.e., a superb Haydn 96 from Hogwood on L’Oiseau-Lyre) has simply inured me to the sound of vibratoless fiddles.

Less needs be said about the Scherzo and the finale: to my ears, they remain the weakest flanks of the 1874 original. The Scherzo has some odd Rossini-like crescendo passages that lead to a boringly repetitive horn solo (the late Robert Simpson called Bruckner’s 1874 Scherzo “the worst composition of his maturity”). The finale tends to ramble and its coda falls far short of the magnificent 1878/80 revision. Here and elsewhere, Norrington seems positively to thrive on the kinetic energy, adventurous harmonies, and terraced dynamics of this tricky score, and the virtuoso accuracy of his Stuttgart ensemble is downright amazing.

With its absorbing annotations by Cohrs (who notes a few minor differences in the text used here), first-rate execution, and excellent recorded sound, this release is clearly a winner. I’m holding onto my Inbal and Lopez-Cobos renditions: both are a bit warmer in the Andante and generally very expressive throughout. However, let it be said that this effort from Norrington represents his finest recorded Bruckner.

FANFARE: Jeffrey J. Lipscomb
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 in E flat major, WAB 104 "Romantic" by Anton Bruckner
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Vienna, Austria 
Notes: Composition written: Vienna, Austria (1874 - 1886). 

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