BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat – Berlin Philharmonic/ Simon Rattle, conductor – EMI

by | Jun 19, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat – Berlin Philharmonic/ Simon Rattle, conductor – EMI Classics 0946 3 84723 2 2, 71:19 ****:

The Bruckner sweepstakes are high indeed; there have been many fine readings over the years, and opinions run fast and loose over this most popular of the composer’s works. The “Romantic” symphony seems to elicit fevered comments among its devotees, and it is destined to remain a controversial work in that everyone has inbred ideas about how it should sound, and the slightest deviation from that ideal leads to a condemnation.

I can’t say that I am any different in my own assessments of recordings of this piece, and certain parts of it must be “just right” in order to get my approbation. This recording by Simon Rattle, his second foray into the world of Bruckner (the seventh was done in 1997 with the CBSO) holds up better than I thought it would. After the first hearing I was not convinced at all; the big brass entrance just a minute or so into the first movement seems to lack definition and the requisite “oomph” that I like (and that I believe Bruckner wanted). There is more of an amorphous, homogenized sound that is not quite as sharp and pointed to achieve the requisite emotional impact. Otherwise the sound proves quite excellent, very clear and crisp with excellent dimensional perspective. Rattle’s tempos in each movement are mainstream (and that is quite a broad category in this symphony), and he shows a fine sense of Brucknerian line and phrasing, not cutting short some of the longer stretches of  the composer’s typical building blocks of harmonic sound, and not obscuring the balance so needed in those giant waves of sound.

Out of all the renditions of this symphony that I have heard over the years, only four currently grace my shelves. The Bohm/Vienna recording on Decca (1973) still reigns supreme; the conductor understood this symphony like no one else, and his reading stands as a monumental, almost unapproachable rock that will be difficult for others to scale. The sound is as good as any on the market, including this Rattle. Second would be the 1971 Karajan (EMI), a broadly paced rendition that has an exceptionally wide soundstage and very large orchestral tone. Next would be the Masur reading on Teldec, a recording that displays to good effect the conductor’s rejuvenating presence on the NY Philharmonic. And lastly the Philadelphia recording, again on EMI, with Sawallisch, beautifully tapered and lovingly phrased. Rattle fits into these last two, where exactly I cannot say, but listening to them again surprised me in how well he competes with them. He is different, but his emphases are on strength of line as opposed to strength of harmonies. Some will prefer the “bottom up” approach where the main thrust is on the building of the harmony from ground up; others like the more linear approach with the melody getting the main focus of attention. Either way has merit, and there are recordings of each type that one could call generically “Brucknerian”.

This is a fine effort, and while it does not come close to replacing the top choices, is certainly worth a listen, if only for the magnificent playing of the Berlin Phil. But Rattle does have a point of view, and I found the experience most rewarding.

— Steven Ritter  

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