* BRUCKNER: Sym. No. 4 in E-flat, “Romantic” – Pittsburgh Sym. Orch./ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings

* BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat, “Romantic” (Nowak 1878/80) – Pittsburgh Sym. Orch./ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings multichannel SACD FR-713, 66:07 [Distr. by Allegro] *****:

It is an odd twist of history, and maybe even one of the more curious conductorial conundrums of musical interpretation, that there are relatively few conductors who are able to manage the music of Bruckner. Mahler, yes—they are there in droves, and as time goes on the pessimistic, even agonizingly contradictory aspects of Mahler’s sometimes hopeful but mostly conflicted and even death-obsessed music becomes easier for even local-level music directors to master. Mahler, in other words, has indeed arrived and become part and parcel of musical culture today just as he predicted. One of the men he most admired was Bruckner, and there could be no massive Mahler—or even the more intimate chamber music moments—orchestration-wise without the devout Austrian.

Yet in this symphony, which is not devoid of the great religious sentiment that inhabits all his work, he harkens back to the folkloristic tales and fables of the middle ages to find a deeply-rooted and incalculably inspirational platform for his work. Honeck, in his perceptive and quite self-explanatory booklet notes, thinks of this work as a tone poem wrought on the scaffolding of Bruckner’s otherwise pious musical foundations. The chorales are there still, and the marvelous counterpoint is present as in his more obviously “religious” pieces; in fact, Bruckner’s belief and commitment is found everywhere in his work, nakedly so, and the spirit and tone of these tenets cannot be ignored. Honeck, while pursuing the fables (and how can anyone fail to perceived the knights riding from the castle, or the hunting calls galore) knows with a certainly how this music is put together, and takes no few pains to illuminate a very familiar score with exquisite balances and beautifully-constructed blending of the sundry orchestral sections.

His selection is the 1878/80 version, to my mind the most solid of the myriad choices available in this tortured revision history. In June 1880 Bruckner composed a new finale – the third, though it shares much of its thematic material with the first version – and discarded the Volksfest finale which he had created after the first version. Thus the 1880 version is the same as the 1878 version but with a new finale. It is far better than Bruckner’s first thoughts.

There have been many fine recordings of this work, but none to my mind holds a candle to Karl Bohm’s 1973 Decca reading. I can honestly say that Honeck and the superb Pittsburghians have given us a performance in phenomenal—underline that—surround sound that launches this rendition to the absolute top of the pile. The extraordinary caressing of phrases, perfection in the finely-graded chordal building blocks so fundamental to any genuine presentation of this music, and the fearlessness that the conductor displays in his willingness to contradict accepted tradition while still manifesting a healthy respect for it, make this experience one that will not easily be matched any time soon.

Reference has always styled itself an audiophile label, but has not always pursued SACD. Now that they are firmly entrenched in this game, the results are in, and they are spectacular. An essential recording!

—Steven Ritter

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