BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 – Sir Simon Rattle – LSO

by | Oct 6, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-Flat Major “Romantic” (1878-1881 vers.)
Discarded Versions of Scherzo, Finale (“Volksfest”), and Initial Versions of Andante quasi Allegretto (1878) and Finale (1881, unabridged) – London Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Simon Rattle – LSO Live LS00875 (2 CDs: 61:32; 65:05) (9/19/22) [Distr. by PIAS] *****:

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestras here embark (rec. live 5 October 20121) on an ambitious project: to realize the second version of Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (1874) as it stood by the end of 1881, in the wake of its alternative, autograph editions and yet to provide performance alternatives based on reconstructions of Bruckner’s extensive revisions of the work from 1878-1881. Rattle respects, for the first time, the composer’s suggested cuts in the Finale. Bruckner’s changes were originally incorporated into the copy which served as a conducting score. These were then correlated with the parts by the copyists involved, and by them, and not Bruckner himself, transferred back into the autograph score. 

These emendations are not found in Bruckner’s hand, but which he made himself in the copies transferred into the autograph, of which he approved. Furthermore, Bruckner discarded the 1878 Finale (“Volksfest”) and added a new composition of it in 1880. The corrections undertaken for the performances of 1880 and 1881 also led to a new copy of the score (1882; by copyist Giovanni Noll), which has the status of an engraver’s copy, for it was offered for publication to renowned music publishers in 1885 and 1886. The new edition realized by Sir Simon Rattle thus sets itself the goal of making it equally possible to perform all the differing work phases of the movements of the symphony between 1878 and 1881, at least inasmuch as they can be identified from the sources.

My first encounter with the Bruckner Fourth by way of the London Symphony Orchestra involved the BBC Legends recording (BBCL 4264-2) with Istvan Kertesz from Royal Festival Hall, London (13 March 1964). Principal horn Barry Tuckwell spoke of “the very soft tremolo in the strings” over which the horn enters. “There should really be no beginning to that first note; it should somehow just be there, in the air, which is very difficult – and very risky – to achieve.”  Despite individual differences in the duration of specific movements, the total timing of the Kertesz and Rattle performance at c. 62 minutes, is remarkably similar. Each of them bears some residue of the influence of the earlier Bruckner enthusiast and interpreter, Bruno Walter (1876-1962) for the adherence to the Austrian laendler tradition. 

Rattle, like Walter and Kertesz, allows the opening movement, Bewegt, nicht zu schnell, to flow after the brass enunciation of the second main theme, its momentum undaunted. The opening horn tune recurs twice in its original form, the first time with flute countermelody, the second with four horns in unison triumph, a potent effect absent in the original version. The ensuing Andante presents a hybrid character, part somber processional, part bucolic, forest reminiscence. The LSO violas elicit a song from Nature, with long, serene phrases through pizzicato, fellow strings. The moments of pantheistic stillness, marked by birdcalls, have something of Wagner’s Forest Murmurs, building to a huge climax, itself quickly fading into the mournful phrases shared by horn, viola, and clarinet. 

Portrait Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

The Scherzo movement always provides a thrill: its clear, hunting motif again invokes one of Wagner’s celestial gallops across mythic skies. The contrasting Trio, in laendler style, retreats to the comforts of the Austrian countryside, allowing the LSO oboe and clarinet their moment in the sun. Bruckner claimed the main theme for his grand last movement – abridged in the 1881 edition – occurred to him in a dream that involved conductor friend Ignaz Dorn. This potent theme in unison enters at the height of the first orchestral crescendo. This theme suffers no alteration in the various revisions, so Dorn receives full loyalty. A tremolo in minor sets the long crescendo to the epic coda, a dispersal of all and any darkness. The opening motif has achieved an apotheosis “devoutly to be wished.” The sonic image, courtesy of Producer Andrew Cornall, proves exemplary. 

CD 2 begins with the world premiere recording of the discarded 1876 Scherzo from the Urtext Edition by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, published by Alexander Hermann Publishing Group, Vienna 2021. An opening, upward rush of energy announces a horn call whose contour slightly resembles the motif of Schubert’s 9th Symphony. The blazing syncopations and declamatory periods gather momentum and then break off. The edgy Trio emerges with bucolic attempts at consolation, but the Scherzo da capo will return the horn motif fff, with the upward filigree more demonized, itself breaking off to introduce the horn muted then louder. The strings continue their plethora of jittery, off accents while the horn and tutti vie for supremacy. The last pages erupt once more, leaving us somewhat spent by the assaults.

The discarded Finale “Volksfest,” 1878, originally involved complex rhythmic structures, some five-in-a-bar, that Bruckner eliminated for the sake of simplicity and accessibility to both players and audience. Proceeding Allegro moderato, the music bears much of the tissue we know from the final version, but there are also periods of relaxation and meditation that Bruckner excised. Some of the transitions, however, seem forced. Brass interjections over string pedal point to Bruckner’s organ-sonority approach to orchestral scoring. Four horns will eventually sound forth in unison to declaim the motif with which the symphony begins. A huge pedal point over the tympani, fff, establishes another period in the course of the main melody. This, naturally, breaks off for bucolic effects in canon, interrupting any sense of dramatic flow for the sake of contrast. Another set of heaving impulses play against the tender secondary motif, now a lyrical processional. Mysterious tremolos usher in the extended coda, rather gripping in its intensity and breadth, perhaps “Wagnerian” might provide an apt descriptor. We do, after all, enter Valhalla.

Rattle turns to the extended, initial version of the processional Andante quasi Allegretto of 1878, which plays but a minute and fourteen seconds longer than the 1881 version. A portion of the difference lies in the fermatas and pauses in the ongoing melodic line. The sonic image for the LSO remains glorious, the low strings, winds, and brass in perfectly clear resonance. The Finale here is the unabridged version of 1881, lasting almost three minutes longer in performance than Rattle’s traversal of the 1881 abridged text. Melodic and dramatic continuity notwithstanding, it becomes more obvious in the various pauses, emotional eruptions, and intimate digressions, why Brahms referred to Bruckner as the creator of boa constrictors in music. Yet, Rattle and LSO deliver these alternate versions in the spirit of loving exploration, and as such, the set warrants our admiration.

—Gary Lemco  

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Album Cover for Sir Simon Rattle, Bruckner 4th


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