ANTON BRUCKNER: Symphony No.4 in E Flat Major ‘Romantic’ (Original Version 1874) – Bayerisches Staatsorchester/ Kent Nagano – Sony Classical

by | Mar 29, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

ANTON BRUCKNER: Symphony No.4 in E Flat Major ‘Romantic’ (Original Version 1874) – Bayerisches Staatsorchester/ Kent Nagano (Recorded: September 19th 2007, Faraolstudios, Munich) – Sony Classical multichannel SACD 88697368812, 74:53 ***** [Import].

The Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and its Music Director Kent Nagano provide their first landmark Sony Classical recording together with a rarely heard version of Bruckner’s Fourth and it is hard not to get tempted hitting the ‘repeat’ button on your audio system.

A composer’s initial creative thoughts are always intriguing to study, particularly when they are divergent from his/her’s final ones. In the case of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), a composer known to undergo scrupulous revisions of his symphonic works, the various stages through which his ideas were inspired, distilled and evolved can provide revealing insights into this composer’s creative genius. In their very first CD performance together for Sony Classical, the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and their general music director Kent Nagano journeyed into a territory divided between facets of unfamiliarity and familiarity, nonetheless an impressive feat they tackled together with the Urfassung 1874 version of the Symphony No. 4 “Romantic.”

The popularity of the “Romantic” Symphony as one of Bruckner’s best-received compositions is unprecedented. A simple search on Bruckner Symphony No. 4  easily returns over 80,000 hits, ranking first amongst the remaining eight symphonies. However, despite its vast familiarity on concert programmes and recording projects, this very first version of Bruckner’s “Romantic” from 1874 has largely been dormant and unfamiliar to the musical world for over a century until it was performed for the first time in 1975 (by Kurt Wöss and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra). If one is asked to describe what piques the popularity of the “Romantic” Symphony amongst the nine symphonies, most Bruckner devotees may argue it being an ideal introduction to Anton Bruckner’s unique sound world.

And of what does this “sound world” consist? This cannot be better put into a nutshell than to quote Felix Gargerle, the Head of the Musical Academy of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Producer of this recording:

     “[Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony in its Urfassung] seemed to us well-suited [to explore the Bruckner sound world]: the Wagner-inspired sound and the linear complexity of Bruckner’s masterpiece would benefit from this alliance [between the Baravian musicians and Kent Nagano] to yield a new sound event. The first version differs amazingly from the familiar later versions: the third and fourth movements are completely different compositions; the score holds far greater technical difficulties for the orchestra and even the core statement and the architecture seem to us to be far more complex and contradictory. Only with difficulty can it be marshaled into a homogenous sound image, so stark are the contours and the abruptness of contrary, but simultaneously sounding lines. Sharp breaks, opposing rhythms and tonal contrasts are frequent. The musical and technical implementation of these considerations represented a particular challenge for the producers.”

In response to this preface, Kent Nagano and members of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra provide their musical perspectives onto this. The opening horn calls led by Johannes Dengler above tremolo strings evokes those imageries to musical landscapes which stretched into the farthest depths of time and space. This musical statement from Dengler engorges into thicker musical episodes supported by the remaining horn and brass players later in the movement, together helping to enrich the dimensions and power in sound. Aside from those minor corrections dispersed throughout the movement, the notable exclusion of an opening violin solo in this first movement is one of the key examples that distinguished this preceding 1874 version from those that followed. The “Wagnerian Sound” envisaged by Bruckner is brought to heightened grounds by Nagano and the Orchestra at the very last few minutes of 19:20 to 21:15, as the team lingered into a state of deep contemplation and musical breath. What was achieved in this first twenty-one minutes can be summed as a platform of alternating visions, defined by enormous pathos and splendour.

For the “funeral march” second movement, a soulful prayer is defined by the unique effects from the dampened Bavarian strings. A closer hearing can allow one to distinguish moments of similarity to the ‘Pilgrims March’ from Berlioz’s ‘Harold in Italy,’ that is juxtaposed by solo episodes from the oboe performed by Simon Dent and  later by the horn as performed by Johannes Dengler. Similarity to a titanic figure in reference to Mahler’s First Symphony could be heard later in the section (in this recording, approximately from 9:30 onwards to 10:30). The Scherzo third movement is composed in a most intriguing way, reminiscent to the affinity for Mother Nature that Mahler depicted in his own Symphonies. Here, the start of a “horn theme” heard audibly referred back to thematic material from the introductory opening of the first movement. In contrast, the hunting Scherzo (added only in later versions) made use of this popular Bruckner horn rhythm and consisted of completely new material. Given this reason, it is therefore not surprising that Bruckner had to compose a completely new, much more balanced finale (1880) to include this new main theme at the beginning of the new Scherzo. The traditional later versions of the Fourth Symphony, therefore, appears somewhat disjoined to say the very least because of this discrepancy, whereas the original 1874 version heard in this recording appears much more coherent. Then, in the extremely daring and complex fourth movement, once referred by Bruckner himself as a ‘folk festival,’ Nagano has gone to great lengths to outline the colourful versatility of his orchestral members. In return, one will hear a score that is far ahead of its time, defined by quintuple rhythm kept throughout. One of the other highlights in this version is the syncopated oscillations from the violin sections at the juncture of the final coda, which has been considered as one of the most difficult sections of the score that places extreme technical demands on the musicians. A tribute to Nagano and his Orchestra, a careful listening to this performance can sometimes discern up to five rhythms layered one over the other. In the overwhelming final moments of the coda, one can automatically think of La Mer by Claude Debussy.

Similar to many of Nagano’s noteworthy performances in the past two decades, spanning between the orchestras that include Montreal and Berlin, the radiance and transparency of this account with the Bavarians helped to lift the Brucknerian soundscape onto another dimension. It is unlike any Bruckner recordings Nagano has done in the past, originating from one reason that Gargerle alludes to: “Great care was exercised to create an outcome that would combine Kent Nagano’s ideal of clarity with the authentic sound of the Orchestra.” Granted, part of that is undoubtedly traced to the origins of the orchestra. The Bavarian State Opera Orchestra has adopted a rich tradition in Germany with its nearly 500 year-long history. It has established a benchmark known to the World as the “Bavarian Sound,” which could be defined according to its close tides with operatic repertoire that would otherwise require a wide range of tonal and colorful palette. However, for this particular German Orchestra, it is also their strong sensitivity and training to respond to human voice that distinguishes them over purely symphonic orchestra. This asset is a striking advantage for the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra to interpret a composition such as the original version of the Bruckner Fourth, which despite its lack of vocal parts from soloists, the instrumentation to its score is as personal and intimately powerful as human voice. It is with this basis the author dares to conjure that this 1874 version of the Bruckner Fourth Symphony contains the original ingredients to a soulful and spiritual identity better than the later versions. The 1874 version, despite its uncertainties and imperfections that the composer later revised, preserves Bruckner’s original vision at a critical stage of his creative life. If one were to dissect this music critically to later versions of the work, one would be surprised to find that the 1874 version has the strongest potential given to individual instrumentalists and sections of the orchestra to mimic the human voice. Even without literary words, the Bruckner’s Fourth has within it the pathos as great as the texts by Schiller and Maurus/Göethe set to the music of Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony and Mahler’s Eighth “Symphony of a Thousand,” respectively.

Those who have heard the Orchestra in person live, especially during the thirty pinnacle years of 1967-1997 under Carlos Kleiber, would find this recording particularly familiar as it captures the finest core of Europe’s instrumentalists. But, what has the orchestra achieved in this present recording of Bruckner’s Fourth that may be different from the musical quality of the Kleiber Years? In a nutshell: it has grown with refinement. Under the direction of Kent Nagano, who seeds into this orchestra with his methodology of “keen analysis, clarity of line and architectonic approach to the interpretation,” the present recording produced none but extraordinary results. It is defined by a level of orchestral playing that is dynamic and bracing, perfectly paced with every climax seeming utterly natural and unforced, while every texture requiring silk-like articulation is as limpid as possible.

With state-of-the-art technology from Sony Classical and acoustic supervision from recording producers Andreas Gaemmerer and Felix Gargerle, Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra have served successfully in their landmark recording to reiterate the orchestral expanses of Bruckner’s music. As a result, this successful venture between the two musical forces has created a recording of Bruckner’s music that will undoubtedly be discussed and remembered for a long time. This has been both a timely and welcome addition to the current scarce discography of the 1874 edition of the Bruckner Fourth; recent stellar recordings include those made by Simone Young/Hamburg Philharmonic (Oehms Recording, also a SACD) and Roger Norrington/Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hänssler Classics). With their Bruckner’s Fourth striking on a strong note, the World eagerly awaits for Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra in their next releases of Bruckner’s Fifth and Eighth Symphonies. For further information, visit

— Patrick P.L. Lam

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